Rating: ★★★★★ 

Sicario is a tough film. So tough, even the title is hard to pronounce. Mexican for “hitman”, but that would have been an obvious moniker. Like much of the film, it feigns a lack of sophistication; yet the last thing it wants is to make things easy. This is not cinema as entertainment. It’s brutal, raw and punishing. Cruel, even.

The opening scene sets the pattern. An FBI team raid a suspected drug den and find more than they bargained for. Bodies in the wall, then more bodies, and a bomb goes off just for good measure. Kate Macy (Emily Blunt) is exhausted and battered and we haven’t even got to the real story yet.

Kate feels like she’s achieving little. The raid was just one more in the war on drugs, a war she suspects they might be losing. Matt (Josh Brolin) thinks different. He has the power to take the fight into Mexico with extreme prejudice and gives Kate the chance to join him and his team of Delta Special Forces. Along for the ride is mysterious Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro).

Laws are being broken and the team are very cavalier about it; Kate is way out of her depth. Alejandro proves himself to be brutally efficient, but his motivation and affiliation are unknown. Kate’s sense of duty is being pushed by a desire to make a difference. Surely there’s a way to do it by the book?

All attempts to find out are rebuffed. Brilliantly, the narrative makes the most of the thin plot by putting the viewer in exactly the same position as Kate and the tension is palpable.

Denis Villeneuve is like the love child of David Fincher and Kathryn Bigelow. The opening scene is not unlike Se7en, albeit with better lighting and the same sense that the audience is being pushed already. And the guts of the film are a match for the over-rated Zero Dark Thirty, a plot that lost tension the longer it went on. This is gripping from the start and gradually tightens until the draining conclusion. It makes his previous film, the superb Prisoners, seem positively sentimental by comparison.

To put it in perspective, there is just one scene that feels relaxed. Kate lets her hair down, literally. Dialogue becomes lighter and you may even smile. “Oh, so you think this is funny?”, the film seems to say. That needs a response and it is the tipping point for her and us into something worse. And to add insult to injury, it was always going to go that way. Sicario laughs at you, not the other way around.

It’s mean, but it takes its time. The measured direction gives way to occasional violence, none more affecting than the journey into Juárez. Apparently, the mayor has complained about the way his city is depicted, and it’s understandable. It’s portrayed as a true hell-hole, not even metaphorically. Bodies hang from underpasses like a grim warning to visitors, sporadic gunfire goes on throughout the night. Roger Deakins is on typical form as cinematographer. Sicario looks fantastic, cool and muted. Fairly static throughout, but look out for the dry horizons of Mexico and Arizona. There is a stand-out night vision sequence in the last act too.

It is utterly committed to Taylor Sheridan’s raw screenplay. He worked on TV show Sons of Anarchy, also known for its stark brutality which tells you a lot about the approach here if you know that series. And the cast is without fault. It bears a resemblance to Traffic, though it’s more effective through simplicity and focus. Star of both, Del Toro simmers throughout, looking not unlike a deadly Brad Pitt. But the film belongs to Emily, ironically the least Blunt thing in the film (sorry); she brings a humanity and warmth to the grim proceedings. Vulnerable and tough in equal measure, right through to the powerful finale, hers is a performance that should be a front-runner come Awards season.

Sicario is magnificent adult action cinema with a bitter agenda. The trailer might have suggested it would fill the noticeable gap left by the Jack Ryan movies, but it’s far more cynical. Not something to be enjoyed as such, but irresistible all the same. It will leave a substantial mark.

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