Review: Sicario

Sicario is the latest film from director Denis Villeneuve. His other films, such as Prisoners and Enemy, have been the source of constant discussion online. They are the types of movies where you can watch the story unfold, react to the “twist,” and then move on to the next film. Or you can stop and think about what you just watched. There’s always more than what is on the surface when it comes to cinema, but Villeneuve has a become the master of using film to communicate strong themes and even stronger social allegories. As is the case with Sicario.

The story follows Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) as she moves from confidently leading her small F.B.I. Team to be introduced to the world of taking down the Mexican cartel. It is in this transition that she meets Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), a D.O.D. adviser leading the charge against the cartel, as well as Alejandro Gillick (Benecio Del Toro), a “consultant” who is here to help get the job done.

The three actors here do a great job displaying the gritty world of the cartel. Each of their characters brings a different perspective to the operation, and we as an audience benefit from the different perspectives. For Brolin and Del Toro, this world is all too familiar. Not only are they comfortable in dealing with the cartel, they can’t do any type of work outside this realm. Blunt, on the other hand, does not adapt well to this new world. In the past Kate was always in her element. She would handle small drug busts and take down perps. Here, where the lines between right and wrong are blurred, she does not fare well and it takes a tole on her psyke.

So the film may be a basic story on the surface, but it is the journey of these characters (mainly Blunt and Del Toro) that make up the meat of the film. That’s why it’s hard to simply comment on the “story.” What is the story? Various government groups work together to take down the cartel, there is a revenge element thrown in there as well. It is pretty straight-forward in that regard. Why then, if we’ve seen stories like this before, is Sicario a fascinating film worth seeing?

The film delivers in that it shows us this standard story from the perspective of deeply interesting characters. Through Blunt, we see this world like we as an audience would normally see it. It’s horrifying. Guns going off in the distance, dead bodies being displayed as a warning to others, and a government agency that doesn’t follow what we perceive as the law. Blunt is a great protagonist in this regard, as she learns about the world so do we. Her character is scared most of the time, but that doesn’t mean she can’t hold her own when it comes down to it.

Del Toro’s character is more than just a supporting role. Alejandro is extremely interesting and his perspective is on the opposite side of the spectrum. Though he works for the good guys now, it is apparent his skills were developed on the other side of the law. His character is very mysterious, and the discovery of his past is a big chunk of the film. So through Blunt we are terrified of this world, but through Del Toro we are apart of it.

Sicario is beautifully directed and magnificently shot. Throughout the film I could not stop thinking about how beautiful the film was. To be clear, I am speaking in terms of filmmaking, not subject matter, the film is very ugly in that regard. When I saw that Roger Deakins was the cinematographer everything made sense. Whether it is Skyfall or any of the Coen Brothers’ movies, Deakins has become known as one of the best cinematographers working today.

So while the interesting characters and strong cinematography are great, it is in the thematic material that Sicario lasts. This is a very surface-level review, and I definitely don’t have the skills to really analyze a film like Sicario, but I can recognize that the film is meant to be considered more deeply than you would your typical “cop movie.”

Here is where the film loses points with me. Though there are scenes of enormous tension, the film drags as a whole. When received simply as an action movie, the film would be mediocre at best. There are some gunfights and other scenes of violence, but that’s not what Sicario is about. Sicario is about bigger things, giving commentary on the cycle of violence that leads to a culture dominated by the Cartel. Whether it be Blunt, Del Toro, or other supporting characters introduced, Sicario dares you to think about this seedy criminal world in new light. There is very little “black and white” in Sicario. The film lives in the grey area. Whether it be questionable consultants, corrupt cops, or criminals with positive intentions leading their criminal activities, Sicario presents us the world as it is.

So on one hand Sicario is a straight-forward crime movie. There is an investigation, people are interrogated, some gunfights take place, and the story resolves. On the other hand, Sicario is a deep film, daring you to contemplate what you perceive about criminal activities. The cartel doesn’t just happen because there are good guys and bad guys and they fight. No, there is a cycle of violence and influence that have lead to lifestyles like this, and that’s what the film explores.

These two sides are not conflicting, they work together to make a successful film. Unfortunately, I would have liked to have seen a little bit more surface-level conflict. I immensely enjoyed the scenes of conflict, Villeneuve does a masterful job building tensions in these scenes. Unfortunately, the movie as a whole has a lot of lulls. So while it is satisfying to think and contemplate the movie after the fact, I wish there was more to dig into while the film was playing. Even with its slower pace, Sicario is a good film that shows how you can use an action movie to contemplate big ideas.

Grade: B-