Film Review: Sicario

Written by Christopher Diggins


Sicario Plot Summary:

An idealistic FBI agent is enlisted by an elected government task force to aid in the escalating war against drugs at the border area between the U.S. and Mexico.

‘Thriller’ can often be a very difficult genre to pin down. Defined primarily by their use of suspense, many thrillers will borrow heavily from other genres, whether that be action, horror, mystery, or any number of other things. If stretched far enough, ‘thriller’ could conceivably be used to describe any movie with moderately exciting scenes. But in its purest form, a thriller is a movie that uses tension, anxiety, and excitement to their fullest extent, a movie that provides not just your average peaks and valleys but a truly…well, thrilling experience. Going by that definition, there is no denying that Sicario is a thriller of the highest order.

Sicario pic 1

Written by Taylor Sheridan and directed by Denis Villeneuve, Sicario follows FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) after she is recruited by DoD adviser Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) to track down a Mexican drug lord. But things are almost immediately complicated by the presence of “consultant” Alejandro (Benicio del Toro), who is evasive about his position and role in the operation. As Kate learns more and more about what Matt and Alejandro are planning, she is as disgusted by their actions as she is inexorably drawn into their world.

As implied before, the movie is unbelievably tense. From the very first scene, it creates this sense of unease that permeates the entire film. What’s great about its use of tension is that it never quite lets up. There are moments of excitement and action that release pressure, but they only ever address the immediate source. There is always this lingering sense of discomfort, this feeling that something is not quite right. The whole movie is built around this operation that Matt and Alejandro have brought Kate into, and its shady nature and nonspecific goals are a constant source of simmering, background tension that heightens every scene.

Many elements go into creating tension, not least of which is the cinematography. The camerawork in Sicario is fantastic, as each shot gives you just enough information to slowly ratchet up the tension in every scene. At other times the camera will pull out, leaving the characters looking small and insignificant, or it will put you right there with a struggling character so you get a real sense of the helplessness that they are feeling. It’s one of those movies where thought has clearly been put into every shot, and it really benefits from it.

Josh Brolin and Benicio del Toro deserve a great deal of credit for creating this tension as well. Brolin plays his character Matt as laid-back, even smarmy. But there is an intensity behind it, a feeling of danger and deceit, even malice, that becomes more and more obvious as the movie goes on. He’s a character that you are never meant to be entirely sure how you feel about, and Brolin pulls it off well. Between the two, however, Benicio del Toro is the real showstealer. When Kate first meets his character Alejandro, he is sitting on the plane they’re taking down to Texas. He barely acknowledges her until she begins questioning him about his role in the operation and his knowledge of cartels. “You’re asking how a watch works,” he replies, not quite rudely. “Let’s just focus on the time right now.”

Sicario pic 2

This exchange perfectly sets the tone for how Alejandro will act for most of the movie. Reserved, evasive, and yet not as off-putting as Matt. Not friendly, but there is a certain amount of affection in his interactions with Kate that is missing from those with Matt. It almost seems like we can trust him…until we first see him around members of the cartel, and his violent intensity explodes forth, dwarfing that of Matt’s. It’s a brilliant performance, one that threads many different subtle emotions into a larger tapestry, and it drives the whole movie. Let’s not leave Emily Blunt out of this praise, though! Her role may be the most difficult of all, as she needs to portray the idealism and humanity of her character through the trauma of these events and her increasing marginalization. Del Toro may drive the movie, but Blunt is its heart, and the emotional core she provides is key to its success.

And that brings us to the writing. This is a movie about the drug war, of course, but it’s not really ‘about’ the drug war. Instead, it uses the framework of the drug war to tell a broader story about idealism and ruthless pragmatism. And here is maybe the only misstep in the movie (though thankfully a small one). Not the story itself, but in its presentation, as throughout its runtime it can sometimes be difficult to figure out exactly what the movie is trying to say. By the end, however, it is perfectly clear. The last few scenes drive the point home beautifully, painting a deeply cynical portrait of the world that will leave you feeling utterly drained.

Sicario is not the kind of movie you’d see if you wanted a relaxing night at the theater, or something uplifting to ease your mind. Incredibly tense and despairing, it is a movie that grabs your attention from the first moment and doesn’t let go until the very end, leaving you mentally and emotionally exhausted. That kind of movie may not be for everyone, but there is no denying that it absolutely nails its intended effect, nor the brilliance that went into creating it. If it does sound like the kind of movie you’d like, it’s one of the best of the year, and absolutely worth seeing.

Rating: 8.5 out of 10