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Review: Sicario (2015)

Sicario (2015)

Directed by: Denis Villeneuve

Premise: An FBI agent (Emily Blunt) is recruited to a government task force that will escalate the drug war against Mexican cartels. What begins as a straightforward mission quickly becomes much more complicated.

What Works: Sicario is intended to meld drug war movies like Clear and Present Danger and Traffic with noir crime thrillers like Chinatown and Touch of Evil. The filmmakers generally succeed at that combination. In the same way that Zero Dark Thirty put the audience on the frontline of the war on terror, Sicario places the viewer in the midst of the barbarity of the drug war. As brutal as the subject matter is, the topic is well handled by director Denis Villeneuve. He had previously directed the 2013 drama Prisoners which also dealt with a morally and ethically complex situation, and he brings his skills to bear here. There are lots of grisly details but Villeneuve stages the scenes in such a way that the movie never feels exploitative. Sicario is beautifully shot by Roger Deakins, the cinematographer of movies such as The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, No Country for Old Men, and Skyfall. There are some beautiful sequences in the movie but the picture also has a great deal of grit both literally and figuratively. Sicario has a grimy texture of reality. Much of the movie is shot and staged in a naturalistic style and episodes of violence and the examination of crime scenes possess an organic feel. The visual style reflects the moral ambiguity of the picture and Sicario is one of those movies that makes a viewer want to take a shower after watching it. The movie is led by a performance by Emily Blunt as the FBI agent. She is quite good and her performance recalls Jodie Foster’s role in The Silence of the Lambs; Blunt possesses the same dual qualities of strength and vulnerability. Benicio Del Toro is cast as a mysterious advisor to the task force and Del Toro contributes a quite intensity as a man with a hidden agenda.

What Doesn’t: Sicario succeeds because of its intensity and grit but the film suffers from a troubled script from actor-turned-writer Taylor Sheridan. Paradoxically, this is a movie intended to obfuscate and complicate the morality of the drug war but the direction of the story and the agendas of the characters are crystal clear from the start and remain that way. This is primarily due to the mishandling of the characters.  Most everyone is exactly who they initially appear to be and the movie reveals very little about them. Blunt is very good in the lead role and there are indications that her character has issues with anxiety and difficulty separating work from the rest of her life but Sicario never expands upon those clues. Part of the problem is that Blunt’s character has very little to do. For most of the task force’s operations she tags along but she is not directly involved in the action or the decision making. The movie hinges on Blunt’s character attempting to figure out just what she’s been recruited to be a part of but from the start it’s obvious what is really going on. From there the movie hinges on whether or not Blunt’s FBI agent will go along with the plan or attempt to expose it or sabotage it. But again she doesn’t do anything and the passiveness of her character hurts the movie. Matters aren’t helped by the casting of Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro. They are both good actors and they do well here but they have played characters like this before, especially Del Toro, and so casting them reveals exactly who these men are long before the plot gets around to it. The story problems come to a head in the ending. The movie has multiple climaxes and the conclusion does not follow logically from the rest of the movie.

Bottom Line: Sicario is so cinematically accomplished that it’s a shame the film isn’t better written. The movie does deliver an intense visceral experience and that alone makes Sicario worth viewing.

Episode: N/A (October 11, 2015)