Denis Villeneuve’s latest delivers tension, thrills in spades.
“In Mexico, Sicario means hitman.” So begins Sicario, the latest thriller from Denis Villeneuve, the French-Canadian filmmaker behind Prisoners and Enemy. His new film is in the vein of the former, in that it takes a pulpy, genre conceit and portrays it through a contemplative, art-house lens. Prisoners was a mystery story about a missing child; Sicario is a thriller about the drug war, with an emphasis on the war, as in violent combat. He made it work before and he’s done it again, in what just might be the year’s best film thus far.
Emily Blunt stars as Kate Macer, an FBI agent who works kidnapping cases. After one of her operations goes sideways, resulting in several deaths, she and her colleague Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya) get roped into an inter-agency task force targeting the drug cartel responsible. To go any further than that set-up would be venturing into spoiler territory, and this is a film best experienced knowing little going in.
This film is a brutal, beautiful thresher: incredibly bleak and somber throughout while being absolutely impeccably made. Villeneuve is joined once again by the legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, who turns in some of the best work of his career here. Some of the shots in this film are unspeakably beautiful. Its sumptuous visuals are accompanied perfectly by Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score, which is at times intense but never gets in the way (most deliciously, over the opening he maintains this low, almost sinister-sounding pulse, instantly establishing the mood and clueing us in for what we’re in for).
Taylor Sheridan writes for the first time (he is primarily a television actor, best known for Sons of Anarchy) and his screenplay is extremely impressive, eschewing convention at every turn. The story boldly denies us satisfaction to make larger points about the futile, vicious battle that is the drug war, which like all wars, chews up and spits out individuals on both sides. The one place the film drags is in a tangent involving Jon Bernthal’s character. Bernthal is great as always but the film would have been better off avoiding the sequence and conveying the information that it does in some other way.
Emily Blunt is very good as the lead here. It is not a showy role, and she turns in a suitably understated performance. Josh Brolin is great as the unconventional, initially charming head of the operation, revealing more of himself as the story progresses. The real star of the film, in my mind, is Benicio Del Toro, who plays a cold, unknowable character who is utterly unforgettable, playing a crucial role in the film’s final act.
The film has a good deal of memorable set-pieces (the opening sequence, the first mission in Juarez, the bank, etc.) but the crown jewel comes towards the film’s end, in which an operation takes place in near total darkness. We see it entirely in night vision. It is a vivid, beautiful scene.
The film’s procedural nature and visceral action call to mind Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty. However, Sicario contains a kind of majesty that the other film does not. It also calls to mind, in its subject matter, desert locales, and cinematography, Breaking Bad.
Sicario is a visceral, beautiful film that shows many people working at the top of their respective games. It not only deserves, but demands to be seen in theaters (if you can stomach the violence and unceasing grimness). Keep your eye on Villeneuve. This guy is the real deal.
“Sicario” opens in select theaters September 18. It is released nationwide on October 2.