I’ve got it. The next big trend in physical fitness. All you need to do is watch Denis Villeneuve’s “Sicario,” once a day, every day, and the pounds will melt off in no time. From its opening moments, depicting a raid on a drug house, the film is sweaty-palms suspenseful.
FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is part of that raid. Soon after, she’s recruited into a task force, which includes Josh Brolin’s Matt Graver and Benicio del Toro’s Alejandro Gillick. They’re to take down a major drug kingpin in Mexico. Kate, unsure of whom to trust even on her own team, realizes she’s swimming in dark and dangerous waters.
The main cast — Blunt, del Toro and Brolin — are really strong. Brolin, with his wry smile and reluctance to give up information, generates a lot of nervous laughs. But del Toro is the MVP. In one of my favorite moments, shortly after we (and Kate) have met him, he’s sleeping on an airplane and his hand starts to twitch and then he wakes with a start. The smallest suggestion that under the enigmatic and menacing exterior, there’s a lot of pain and sadness.
Taylor Sheridan’s screenplay doesn’t provide Blunt’s Kate with a whole lot of background or even agency, but that’s why you cast one of the best actresses of her generation. In an early exchange, we learn that she’s divorced and doesn’t have kids. No family attachments. (How’s that for foreboding?) Throughout the film, she often finds herself on the losing end of conflicts, which is a little unusual for mainstream audiences. I didn’t mind it so much, as it felt emblematic of the drug war itself. It’s a losing battle.
The action setpieces have a real sense of presence. Explosions aren’t accompanied with the standard fireball. They’re concussive forces, throwing our heroes to the ground. Kevlar vests don’t keep characters free from harm. Bullets still knock the wind out of them, leaving them gasping for air. Interrogations aren’t performed with a lot of flapping and yelling but cold and quiet intimidation. I’ve never witnessed a real explosion, been shot at or interrogated — knock on wood — but these moments felt refreshingly absent any trumped up Hollywood conventions.
Indeed, the film achieves all this without resorting to cinema verite techniques (handheld camera, extensive film grain, etc.). I’ve talked about Cinematographer Roger Deakins on the blog before, and I can’t overstate his skill and artistry behind the camera. In what’s sure to be one of the shots of the year, a group of gunmen are preparing for a dangerous trek underground at sunset. As they move across the barren desert landscape, their silhouettes appear against the nearly-night sky and slowly sink into the dark horizon.
Deakins and Villeneuve employ a lot of helicopter shots, particularly as the task force is driving across the border into Mexico for a mission. Being a fan of “The Shining,” I couldn’t help but think of the opening moments of Stanley Kubrick’s film as Jack Torrance drives to the film’s haunted hotel. The effect here is similar, as we watch from on high as our characters navigate into trouble.
Due to its blistering intensity and pessimistic worldview, “Sicario” isn’t going to be a film for everyone. But if you’re willing to take the ride, I think the craftsmanship and strong performances are definitely worth your time.
Have you seen “Sicario?” What did you think? Comment below and thanks for reading!