Starring: Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin, Jon Bernthal, Daniel Kaluuya, Jeffrey Donovan, Victor Garber, Maximiliano Hernández | Screenplay by: Taylor Sheridan | Director: Denis Villeneuve
Since his impressive turn with Prisoners in 2013, director Denis Villeneuve has further honed his craft by weaving stark visuals and haunting themes within an emotional maelstrom. Sicario isn’t a story that hasn’t been tackled by Hollywood before, featuring an overwhelming American strike force targeting a shadowy Mexican cartel.
What makes it an especially unique experience is the triumvirate of talent Villeneuve’s vision combined with legendary talents of cinematographer Roger Deakins (Skyfall, True Grit, No Country for Old Men) and the foreboding, minimalist electronic score by composer Jóhann Jóhannsson (The Theory of Everything, Foxcatcher) culminates in a bleak yet visually expansive crime drama that simmers in the murky greyness of intrigue and amoral stratagem.
Emily Brunt plays FBI agent Kate Macer, chosen to be part of a team led by a DOD consultant (Josh Brolin) to “make noise” and attract the interest of the reclusive head of a powerful drug cartel. Also tasked to the group is another consultant known simply as Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro). From the start Macer is fed a series of half-truths and disinformation, never knowing why she was chosen for the task force – or the operation’s true objective.
One slant that could potentially be overblown is the treatment of Blunt’s Macer. As the sole female lead, much could be written about how overlooked, disparaged, and mistreated Kate Macer was among her colleagues and Alejandro. Rather than rabidly peruse for, conflate or straight up fabricate an anti-feminist stand within Sicario, the more intelligent viewer – yes, this film does require some perceptiveness – would come to realize Macer is no more looked down upon for her gender than she is for her adherence to protocol and wide-eyed gullibility. In anything she is our everyman, the person who believes the world can be changed for the better, permitted those who commit to establishing order and justice restrain themselves by their own laws.
As Brolin’s charmingly deceptive Matt informs Kate over and over and over again, everything that she takes in with a doe-eyed innocence is only the tip of the iceberg. Slowly and sadly, Macer acquiesces to the fact that the world she hopes to improve cannot and will never come to pass; a stark yet unfeigned sentiment expressed and enacted with lethal precision by the cryptic “consultant” Alejandro.
Del Toro’s portrayal of Alejandro is less of a gory spectacle and more of an embodiment of death that lingers along the faded edges of humanity. Very few people within the American operation speak to him directly in the film and those within his presence south of the border acknowledge him with odd mix of reverence and terror. When weapons free, Alejandro dispatches his targets with haste and accuracy that’s disturbingly masterful. The more that is chipped away about Alejandro’s past – thanks to Macer’s incessant need for full disclosure – the less human he becomes and assumes his role as the Alpha “in the land of wolves”.
This bestial force is the true Alejandro. Whilst in the guise of a well-tailored specialist, he attempted to teach Macer about the way of his world, one made of blood and retribution. What remains by Sicario’s end is an entity in the form of a man, devoid of empathy and unable to feel satisfaction in the elimination of all his enemies. Ultimately, Del Toro’s depiction of Alejandro was one of his more complex and sinister turns on screen since The Hunted.
Despite all of its strengths, Sicario isn’t without its deficits. Aptly written by Taylor Sheridan (known mainly for the role of Chief Hale in Sons of Anarchy), Sicario has the distressful quality of assuming all the audience needs to know is presented before them. Blunt, Brolin and Del Toro’s are given the majority of screen time, yet only Del Toro’s Alejandro is given any sort of backstory.
Otherwise, we’re given nothing but fleeting moments of Blunt’s pained, vacant stares while she smokes/rides shotgun/looks into a mirror/etc. Exceptional and moving Blunt may have be as Kate Macer, the emphasis on her being a by-the-book goody two shoes was aggravating at some points. During a particularly tense action sequence, Kate has a moral crisis in the midst of a fire fight when one would assume her training would automatically kick in, disregarding her internal strife after all was secure.
Character development slights aside, Sicario is a film that shocks and disturbs from start to finish, rife with illegality and horrors that are unfortunately rampant in many impoverished areas in the world. Don’t expect a happy ending; if anything, treat Sicario as a morality tale. While one may employ evil to fight evil, does that truly accomplish anything in the end? Macer tries to be the light in a sea of darkness, but even her perseverance erodes against her associates’ cynicism.
As Edmund Burke once portended “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”