Sicario Review

Posted: October 7, 2015 by Daniel Simpson (PG Cooper) in PG Cooper's Movie Reviews

sicario_posterWritten by Daniel “PG Cooper” Simpson

It’s been pretty exciting to watch Denis Villeneuve’s gradual rise in the film community. His breakthrough is most certainly the Oscar nominated Incendies, a great film. Since then, Villeneuve has directed two English language films; Prisoners and Enemy, both of which showed that his technical abilities behind the camera were legitimate. The thing is, while both of those films had elements I liked, I found both to be considerately lower in quality than Incendies. So, much as I’ve been enjoying watching Villeneuve’s career grow, I don’t think his English language films have hit the heights they could be. However I was hopeful Sicario would be the film to break the mold, particularly given the ecstatic reviews.

Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is an FBI agent running a kidnap response team in Arizona. One particularly nasty raid ties into the Mexican drug cartel. Macer is eager to make an actual difference rather than just cleaning up the mess. This draws the attention of Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), a Department for Defense adviser who’s putting a team together to combat the cartel in Mexico. Macer sees this as an opportunity to finally make a serious difference, but soon finds herself surrounded in corruption and moral ambiguity.

Sicario is a film that really wants to be a serious exploration of the Mexican drug trade. The film presents the brutality used by the drug lords, the questionable standards used by law enforcement agencies, and features many conversations pertaining to how the war on drugs should be fought. However despite all of this, I never really bought the film as an authentic and insightful look into that world. Instead of actually exploring the nuanced problems of the Mexican drug trade, a lot of scenes just escalate into brutal shootouts. Sure, that does happen in real life, but all too often that’s all the movie offers. This is most prominent in the film’s climax, where one person takes out several thugs and infiltrates a mansion in order to assassinate a high profile target. These are things one sees in an action film, not a serious examination of the war on drugs. The film’s final message is basically that the war on drugs is a messy business and as a result ethical compromises are made, for better or worse. I don’t disagree, but for a film committed to exploring the murky bottom of this very real social problem, I expected a little more.

I would have been a bit more forgiving of the film’s thematic shortcomings had the surface plot been stronger, but that isn’t the case. The basic plot is a pretty traditional story of a rookie cop discovering the seedy underbelly of the occupation. The script does try to shake things up with a few twists, but these are all telegraphed from the start. The script also takes some convenient shortcuts in its writing and features a shameless attempt at emotional manipulation through a subplot involving a Mexican father and his young son.

On the plus side, the performances here are great. Emily Blunt’s performance as a frustrated agent trying to make sense of her chaotic situation is really well-realized and powerful. I do kind of wish Macer had more of an arc though. She starts out as a frustrated cop disillusioned with the system, and ends with pretty much the same feelings, albeit to a greater degree. Benicio del Toro also has a great role here as someone seemingly fighting with the law, but is of questionable ethics. Del Toro has always had a knack for bringing a lot of nuance subtly to characters with minimal dialogue (his role in Traffic comes to mind) and he does just that here. He infuses just the right amount of empathy and menace to create a really compelling and memorable character. However the show stealer here might actually be Josh Brolin, who’s clearly having fun playing the charming and manipulative leader Matt Graver. While the rest of the characters are deadly serious, but Graver faces his situation with humour and macho bravado. That sort of thing might have come off terrible, but Brolin is the perfect guy for such a part and he does a really good job. All three actors give really memorable performances and are worthy of the praise they’ve received.

While the film’s story and themes are highly flawed, Sicario does still reaffirm my faiths in Denis Villenueve’s technical abilities. The film is really well put together. Villeneuve allows for slow builds and tension which lead to some really satisfying scenes. Much as I complained about the film’s emphasis on action over ideas, I’d be lying if I said those scenes weren’t extremely well-executed. The film opens on a raid undertaken by Macer and her team which is enthralling and exciting. There’s also a really brutal fist fight and three unique shootouts. The sound of the gunfire in these scenes is particularly noticeable. Villeneuve is once again working with legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, who lives up to his usual high standards. He does a great job capturing the harsh conditions and his visualization goes a long way to inject the film with the authenticity it strives for. Deakins also plays with night vision and infrared to great effect during a crucial scene in the film’s third act. It’s a very visually engaging film, and is aided by Jóhann Jóhannsson’s powerful ambient score.

At the end of the day, Sicario is quite similar to Villeneuve’s other English-language films. I love a lot of the craft on display, but find the story it’s ultimately supporting very flawed and with half-baked themes. I’m really hoping somebody can finally get Villeneuve a script worthy of his talent because I’m sure he can make more great films. Sicario is not a great film, and despite executing on a few things really well. The three leads do give great performances, the technical elements shine, and certain scenes really are great within a vacuum. The problem is Sicario never comes together as a meaningful whole, and I can only get behind a film like that so much.

B-

Comments
  1. Dan O. says:

    Good review PG. It’s tense and exciting, but also has a lot more going on underneath the hood than just blood, bullets and drugs.

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