By James Hancock September 18th, 2015
There’s a point about halfway through director Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario where the film makes the switch from being a really good movie to the stuff of movie greatness. I can’t remember the last time I left a theater with waves of chills going up and down my back and neck but that is exactly what happened to me tonight. While the subject of Sicario is one of the most complex puzzles of the modern age, the story featured in the film is very straightforward. Emily Blunt plays an FBI agent in Arizona who specializes in rescuing people kidnapped by Mexican drug cartels operating in the US. Frustrated with only tackling the symptoms of a larger problem, she volunteers for a special, intra-agency task force led by Josh Brolin whose goal is to cripple the cartels at their source. Brolin’s character has very little regard for the letter of the law and has been granted a lot of leeway in his tactics including the use of one of the most hardcore killers ever caught on screen, played to perfection by Benicio Del Toro. Very quickly, Blunt’s character must face ethical and legal choices where there are no clear right answers. From the incredible screenplay by Taylor Sheridan to the extraordinary performances across the board, there’s not a dishonest emotional beat in the entire film. Every shocking scene of violence and horror is absolutely 100% earned. This is one of those rare movies where the heavy political overtones in no way interfere with the filmmaker’s ability to tell a riveting story. By refusing to assume a sanctimonious posture or push an overt statement, a temptation lesser filmmakers can’t resist, Villeneuve forces the audience to explore a terrifying world and come to their own conclusions, conclusions that are not readily forthcoming.
Fair warning, I will now be going into some **spoiler territory** but nothing major. The story is so refreshingly unpredictable that I don’t want to ruin anything for people who might see it. Perhaps I’m a little bit thick but there was a moment in the film where I finally realized why the film is called Sicario, a term used to describe a hitman in Mexico. When Emily Blunt drunkenly tries to seduce a man who has been hired to kill her, I thought I had it figured out, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. I also foolishly thought that Emily Blunt was the star of the movie. Wrong again. While Emily Blunt turns in an extraordinary performance, my favorite of her career and one that could easily get her an Oscar nod, the real star of this movie is Benicio Del Toro. Blunt has more screen time and more dialogue but Del Toro’s persona looms darkly over this entire movie. Once we learn that his wife was beheaded and that his daughter was immersed in acid, we understand why he is so determined to aid Brolin in his mission. Del Toro’s role is to assist Brolin’s team until they have enough information to turn him loose to do what he does best, kill very dangerous men in utterly ruthless fashion. From the moment their squad invades a tunnel between the US and Mexico, the film stylistically and dramatically ups the stakes to a point of such tension I often had to remind myself to breathe. For the last half of the movie, Villeneuve showcases some incredibly confident filmmaking and never for one second did I have cause to second guess where he might be taking us. The movie has heart and emotion without ever getting sentimental. In Blunt, the film has enormous sex appeal but no silly forced romance has been tacked onto the film. And the movie has actions, tons of it, but not the kind of cheap thrills offered by hacks like Michael Bay. This is the kind of terrifying action where at any second I felt like I might get shot in the face. Sicario is a rare film with balls of steel and I can’t imagine any other movie released this year matching it for sheer grit and unflinching realism. At the finale of the film, Del Toro offers an ominous prediction about the border between the US and Mexico now being ‘the land of wolves’. It is line that I feel will reverberate with me for many years to come.
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