Sicario is amazingly easy to compare to other movies you might have already seen. Traffic, Zero Dark Thirty, even something like The Kingdom touches on Sicario‘s story of naive American armed forces discovering the reality of the world. What makes this film stand out, then, is how it tells its story. So director Denis Villeneuve put his trust in a great cast, legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, Steve McQueen’s go-to editor Joe Walker, and Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson to make something greater than just another procedural.
Kate (Emily Blunt) is an FBI SWAT agent who, along with her partner Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya), discover a house of (a couple dozen) corpses in Arizona. This discovery gets Kate teamed up with an enigmatic DoD adviser (Josh Brolin) and his stoic partner Alejandro (Benicio del Toro), as they offer her a chance to really make a difference in the war with Mexican drug cartels. That’s about all they tell her though, and things get really messed up pretty much from the get-go.
So here’s what I’ll say about Sicario: it’s a movie about tension. Not just that conventional “somebody’s trying to kill someone” tension, although there’s a lot of that, but the strain between allies who don’t get along. People trying to work together while simultaneously withholding as much information as possible. Pretty much every scene is about someone trying to get a question answered. The four central characters are constantly, frustratedly asking something that the others can’t or won’t explain. And it seems like every other character in the movie is just there to interrogate or be interrogated by the others.
Those unanswered questions highlight the overwhelming futility of the actions these characters take. The promise to finally make a real difference is what draws Kate to this operation, but as she sees what change actually looks like, she might not be able to handle it. There are big forces at work, bigger forces than a single person could ever take on. The war on drugs is not a war you can ever win.
Roger Deakins does some absolutely incredible work in Sicario, you should see this film on a big damn screen. There are several long helicopter shots that do an amazing job giving you a feel for the vastness of places like Juarez and how tiny and vulnerable our team is there. In the face of such an insurmountable problem, how could they make a difference? Later in the movie is a sequence at night shot partially with night and thermal vision that’s so great it will make you wonder if other cinematographers just aren’t trying hard enough.
This was a movie that I enjoyed for all the reasons I have trouble writing about in a review. It was full of wonderful sights and sounds and feelings. That’s not to say Sicario has a weak script, just that the script’s greatest strengths were in creating memorable set pieces and symbols – some of which are a little too heavy-handed for my taste (I did not especially like the last few shots). A lot of the conversation has focused on the cast too, particularly Benicio del Toro and the way he takes over the movie in the second half. That’s fair too, it’s a great cast, but I don’t think that’s the reason to see this movie. No, Sicario is out there to remind us of the craft of filmmaking. And it does it incredibly well.