A film review by Craig J. Koban October 9, 2015



2015, R, 121 mins.


Emily Blunt as Kate Macer  /  Josh Brolin as Matt  /  Benicio Del Toro as Alejandro  /  Daniel Kaluuya as Reggie  /  Jon Bernthal as Ted

Directed by Denis Villeneuve  /  Written by Taylor Sheridan

Quebec born filmmaker Denis Villeneuve has a better knack than perhaps any other director for tapping into the darker underbelly of the human psyche, and he does so with a brutally uncompromising authenticity.  

His last two films, PRISONERS and ENEMY, explored the nature of paranoia and distrust and how those feelings bring out the worst and most cruel aspects of people when placed in pressure cooker situations.  Villeneuve never soft-pedals his material for mass popular consumption; he’s more interested in fully exploring the question of morality and the unraveling of ethical order in society.  In many ways, there are no clear-cut, black and white heroes and villains in his films…just uneasy and uncertain shades of grey. 

Villenueve’s new film SICARIO continues the thematic undercurrents of his past films, this time, though, he’s honing in on US/Mexican border warfare on the drug trafficking front.  Much akin to PRISONERS and ENEMY, SICARIO never once seems compelled to pathetically and lazily cater to lowest common denominator audience tastes and expectations.  Villeneuve’s film is rooted in the dreary depths of the whole multi-country drug war and exposing the level of seedy corruption – on both sides of the law – that often defines it.  Steven Soderbergh’s Oscar winning TRAFFIC did much of the same 15 years ago, but Villeneuve takes it a few steps further in showcasing the de-evolution of justice and order when law makers and enforcement use highly questionable means to achieve their end games in nabbing hard-to-reach targets.  The central moral quandary of SICARIO is an ageless one -  when does the ends justify the means and how far is one willing to go to achieve order in society? – but the manner that Villeneuve explores it (without directly having simple answers) gives the film a cynical heartbeat and a haunting sense of large scale hopelessness.



SICARIO opens with a few title cards explaining the meaning of its title, the first of which refers to zealots in ancient Jerusalem that killed Roman invaders and the second being a Mexican word for “hit man.”  Villeneuve then shifts into the film’s masterfully staged and sensational opening sequence, during which time the director displays his full aptitude for choreographing action sequences of nail biting suspense.  Kate Macer (a rock solid and as assured as ever Emily Blunt) is an FBI agent who heads up a kidnap-response squad that is leading a raid on a target home in Chandler, Arizona.  While looking for hostages – and after a remarkably bloody and intense shootout with some of the perpetrators – her team makes a ghastly discovery: dozens of dead and decomposed bodies, all wrapped in plastic, have been stored vertically in-between the walls of the home.  But, who did this to these poor souls and why?  The film’s haunting and nerve jangling introduction does a bravura job of cementing the story’s tone right from the get-go. 

Unfortunately, before Kate and her team have the opportunity to take in their findings and begin piecing together the evidence, a massive backyard explosion occurs, killing some and wounding many others.  In the aftermath Kate finds herself being recruited by a shadowy veteran agent Matt (Josh Brolin), who makes a promise to Kate that they will bring down the man responsible.  Matt offers her a chance to join his team, comprised of another mysterious agent Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), whose origins and motives are never fully revealed right from the beginning.  Matt’s plan is to use a by-any-means-necessary approach to lure out drug kingpin Manuel Diaz (the man most likely responsible for the mass Arizona kidnappings and murders) by essentially kidnapping his brother from a Juarez jail to “interrogate” him for information.  Of course, Matt informs Kate that their central mission is pure of heart in terms of stopping a Mexican cartel leader, but deep down he has other seedier objectives that he never reveals to her, leaving her growing increasingly disillusioned in the process.  Kate enthusiastically joins Matt’s squad with a hungered passion to stop the man responsible for slaying her fellow agents, but Matt refuses, as more time goes by, to disclose the true nature of their mission.  The longer Kate submerges herself in Matt’s team the more her conscience is shattered with multiple revelations that the war on drugs is not only unwinnable, but has evil forces beyond the criminals themselves. 

Taylor Sheridan’s script is chillingly ruthless in the manner that it thrusts Kate into the heart of darkness that is her mission with Matt’s squad, carefully and meticulously crafting Kate’s slow decent into confusion and anxiety as she begins to realize her place in the mission and the utter futility of even attempting to do the “right and honorable thing.”  The bleak, but powerful, message at SICARIO’s core is how a good and decent law abiding people become corrupted by the very forces they have sworn to work within as they face off against criminals who are arguably just as corrupt as their handlers.  Villeneuve and Sheridan maliciously twist viewers from one extreme to another, which gives their film such a ruthlessly hard edge of trepidation throughout.  Are Matt’s methods truly justifiable in his country’s war on drugs?  Should Kate essentially sell her soul to such dishonest methodology if it means positive results?  Moreover, can the war on drugs – regardless of the duplicitous methods used – be won in the first place?  These damning questions are ultimately rooted in futility and all out despair; by the time the film ends there’s no sobering and comforting sense that any side has “succeeded” or “won.”  SICARIO, if anything, is about what happens when there are no discernable rules of engagement in a murky and convoluted war without any apparent end in sight. 

Villeneuve has always commanded intrinsically empowered performances from all of his actors in his past films, SICARIO being no exception whatsoever.  Blunt, serving as the audience surrogate and moral center, becomes the tragic and beleaguered soul of the film in how she shows Kate’s mental implosion in succumbing to the temptation of bringing evil doers to justice without fully comprehending the extent of what those actions entail.  Blunt is arguably one of the finest actresses for combining raw toughness, headstrong confidence, tenderness and wounded vulnerability, which she assertively displays in full force here.  Josh Brolin is also strong playing his tricky role of Matt, a man that outwardly and initially seems to be a lawman with pure motives, but deep down hides his inherent corruption (the actor never once telegraphs his part one way or another, which keeps the viewer constantly guessing).  And then there’s the brilliant Del Toro, who constantly seems to be lurking and staring with a frighteningly calm resolve throughout much of the film.  It’s a marvel to see how he manages to create an unnerving character using subtle body language, especially when the script – at first – doesn’t reveal too much about him in terms of back-story.  Like a caged animal that you’re never quite sure when will be sprung loose, Del Toro accentuates SICARIO’s escalating sense of almost sadistic unease; he’s so calculatingly terrifying here without using broad performance strokes to underscore it.    

Villeneuve is also as technically proficient as any filmmaker working today.  Something needs to be said about the way he frames the action in his films.  So many – pathetically, make that too many – modern film directors rely on over-caffeinated visuals and seizure-inducing editorial overkill when it comes to presenting the mayhem on screen, but Villeneuve is far too wise to fall victim to such overused directorial gimmicks.  His action sequences are clean and precise and are typified by elegant camera pans…and when the violence comes it’s lightning quick and barbaric and never once celebrates it for sensationalistic effect.  One mid-story sequence – a tour de force shootout between cops and Mexican enforcers at a jam-packed border crossing – reinforces Villeneuve’s complete command over his craft.  Complimenting him is veteran Roger Deakins’ lush and sprawling cinematography, which gives this otherwise corrupt and ugly themed film frequent moments of painterly beauty. 

As an examination of the bleak worldview of the war on drugs, SICARIO is audaciously intense, incredibly performed, evocatively directed, and, most importantly, morally ambiguous.  The film’s inherently depressing climax offers very little in the way of emotional solace or a sensation of dramatic closure.  If anything, it enhances the menagerie of lies and deceit that Kate finds herself surrounded by and trapped within…and with no apparent hope in sight.  SICARIO never once adheres to Hollywood genre norms or troupes, and it’s infinitely better for it.  I was thoroughly depressed and exhausted after watching it, which just may be the point.  Villenueve doesn’t shy away from the harshness of his films; he fully embraces and harnesses it with surgical precision and is clearly working on a whole other upper qualitative echelon apart from his filmmaking contemporaries.  

SICARIO is proof positive of that. 

  H O M E