May 20, 2015 Leigh Singer

Sicario – Cannes 2015 / IGN

SICARIO (Cert. 15)
121 min
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Stars: Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin
Rating: * * * (out of 5)


“This is a land of wolves,” declares Benicio Del Toro’s lethal assassin in new thriller Sicario, neatly wrapping up the film’s cynical mission statement. Denis Villeneuve’s bleak, murky tale of bad guys and worse guys, sees an illegally operating CIA outfit trying to take down a Mexican drug cartel by any means necessary, with one relatively green FBI operative Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) plunged into the middle. If the crime-infested Tex/Mex border war zone is no country for old or young men, it’s a whole different ball game for a woman.

Putting Blunt front and central is Sicario’s unique selling point, distinguishing it from the numerous American movies dabbling in the drug trade and/or corrupt law enforcement, from Traffic to Syriana to Training Day to every other gangster film around. Macer is a consummate pro, first seen leading a bust on a home in a small Arizona town that reveals the shocking, gruesome discovery of forty-two decaying corpses hidden in the walls. But her professionalism and her ethics are tested to the limit when she’s encouraged to join the team of mysterious ‘spook’ operative Matt Graver (Josh Brolin). Graver basically tells her that her work is accomplishing little and if she really wants to make a difference, his crew, including an even more secretive agent Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) are going to cross borders and lines to take out the head honchos behind all the bloodshed.

There’s an element of Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling in Silence of the Lambs here, or Jessica Chastain’s Maya in Zero Dark Thirty, as Kate struggles to navigate and survive a tough, macho world, while remaining true to herself. Blunt does good work, never playing down Kate’s vulnerability and disorientation and Villeneuve initiates us into this cruel world through her eyes. One fine sequence has Kate’s longing for intimacy and simply getting laid only get her into more trouble, and Blunt bravely nails the anguish of realizing how her femininity is just another lever to be exploited. That said, imagining her getting similar awards attention to Foster or Chastain is tough.

In addition, unlike Clarice or Maya, the film breaks away from Kate a little too frequently and when it does, its generic elements take over. Strangely, Villeneuve and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan seem to think that they’ve invented the whole concept of grey areas and moral compromises. Yet by now we’ve seen so many renderings of (American) power structures as flawed and duplicitous, the real radical move would be to flip that paradigm or at least not treat it as the back-patting revelation it seems here.

A solid cast helps the over familiar medicine go down smoothly at least. Brolin’s gum chewing, blasé boss is entertaining if sketchy; and there’s a nice supporting turn from young British actor Daniel Kaluuya as Kate’s tough-talking but supportive FBI partner. What’s most welcome is the return to form of Benicio Del Toro. Alejandro is gradually revealed as the “sicario” himself (Mexican slang for “hitman”), and Del Toro uses his natural heft well. He plays the haunted Alejandro with a stillness and quiet authority that at times projects genuine compassion, and then, when he needs to cut loose, an intimidating righteous fury.

Villeneuve’s technical skills have already seen him chosen to helm the upcoming Blade Runner sequel and in Sicario, he’s clearly working off the playbook of Michael Mann-erisms. Teaming again with genius British cinematographer Roger Deakins (who shot Villeneuve’s Prisoners), the widescreen framing and use of light and shade to accentuate the shifting moral landscape is powerful. There’s also good use of diverse visual formats, from surveillance cameras to sickly green night vision and hyper-real thermal vision, a patchwork of alienating tools that allows hunters to effectively dehumanize their quarry. And Jóhann Jóhannsson’s droning Hans Zimmer-esque score takes every opportunity to pump up the foreboding ambience.

Yet, for all its accomplished filmmaking and effective performances, there’s something naggingly rote about Sicario. It’s bleak and often brutal but rarely achieves the Heat-like intensity it’s striving for in its action set pieces. Mexicans, with one clunky exception, are cannon fodder; even if that’s a deliberate critique of US patriot games, it’s wearying. There’s a sense of self-importance about not just Graver’s mission, but the whole world’s-gone-to-hell thesis, without ever attaining the moral profundity or despair of, say, the Coen Brothers No Country…, a fact which Brolin’s presence awkwardly reminds us. True, few films match those two classics. But if Sicario is decent enough, and occasionally better than that, its bark is worse than its bite. Despite Del Toro’s portentous claims, it’s more a sheep in wolf’s clothing.

Many fans of downbeat crime thrillers will likely be convinced by Denis Villeneuve’s seductive trip to the dark side, especially by Roger Deakins’s imagery and Blunt and Del Toro’s performances. But ultimately this is fairly standard bad-cop-worse-criminal fare. No drugs bust, then, but nothing to get hooked on.

To read the original review on click here: Sicario IGN review

Tagged: , , , , ,