From the Archives: Sicario review

From the Archives: Sicario review

In the interest of getting “hard” copies of my work under one roof, I plan to spend the next few weeks posting the entire archive of my film journalism here on ScullyVision. With due respect to the many publications I’ve written for, the internet remains quite temporary, and I’d hate to see any of my work disappear for digital reasons. As such, this gargantuan project must begin! I don’t want to do it. I hate doing it. But it needs to be done. Please note that my opinions, like everyone’s, have changed a LOT since I started, so many of these reviews will only represent a snapshot in time. Objectivity has absolutely no place in film criticism, at least not how I do it. 

Without further ado, I present to you: FROM THE ARCHIVES.
Originally posted on Cinema76.

To watch Sicario is to be forced at gunpoint to traverse an abandoned minefield – at any moment, the path we walk may blow us to bits, yet we press on, fingers crossed, doing anything possible to put aside the thick sense of dread, hoping that some, any, respite will be found on the other side. A plane flies over Juarez, Mexico, casting a tiny shadow on a tree-less jungle. Civilization lies below, yet it is anything but civilized. The churning, industrial tones of Jóhann Jóhannson’s score resonate in the chest, causing a sort of cinematic shell shock, as our cast of characters enters a veritable war zone by air. Our eyes are wide open, as if being held by a speculum. To blink is to reveal a weakness, to let one’s guard down. When the key to survival is to “stay frosty,” not a false move can be made.

French-Canadian director Denis Villenueve populates the screen with an aura of encroaching doom. In Prisoners, it took the form of a cold darkness, in Enemy, a spider, but in Sicario, every environment feels like it is cowering in the face of an omnipresent volatility. Even the safety of a securitized CIA base feels tenuous at best, as if danger is always lurking just at the edge of perception, and to confront it is to welcome it in.

A “Sicario” is a hitman employed by cartels to do the dirty work of drug lords, often making a gruesome arts & crafts show of it. When Kate (Emily Blunt) is first introduced to one of the most dangerous areas of Juarez, a fellow operative, Steve (Jeffrey Donovan) notes that one of the reasons the Sicario will mutilate a body is to make it appear to any civilians that the victim most likely “deserved it.” It’s a dark politic, but one that permeates the actions of every character, including Kate, our resident idealist.

After a mostly successful string of drug busts in suburban Arizona, FBI Agent Kate Macer is invited to join with a tight-lipped, loose-on-the-rules squad of operatives headed by Matt (Josh Brolin) and the mysterious Alejandro (Benicio del Toro, doing career-best work). It’s unclear what organization these guys work for, if any, and it’s very clear that they operate outside of any sort of law. To them, the ends justify the means, and this doesn’t sit well with Kate, despite her intense desire to bring the drug lords to justice.

It’s these murky waters of ethics vs. results through which the entire film takes place, and by the end, we’re still neck deep in it. Does violence breed violence? Is vengeance as cyclical as cinematic samurai often cite? If crime and crime fighting are both simply a means of survival, then perhaps the machine is broken … or maybe it needs to work a little bit longer.

Taylor Sheridan’s script is decidedly minimal, but it works well with such a solid team of actors. Both Blunt and Del Toro are capable of saying a lot without uttering a word. Del Toro’s shaggy dog exterior hints at an internal fire which, although burning strong, causes him discomfort, while Blunt’s eyes have a wider dramatic range than the entire toolbox of many actors. Josh Brolin, once the beefy hunk in Hollow Man, continues to show massive versatility, and an ability to disappear into a role despite being one of the more recognizable Hollywood faces. Also notable are Jeffrey Donovan of Burn Notice fame, and Daniel Kaluuya, both bringing A-game talent to smaller, purposefully thankless roles.


The real standout hear, unsurprisingly, is the cinematography by Roger Deakins. His shot composition is picturesque but pulsating with the feeling that anything in frame (and out) could come crumbling down without notice, irrevocably altering the narrative with it. Juarez seems like a very, very scary place, and Deakins finds a grimy beauty in it. Sicario skillfully depicts the cartel land as both a violent hell hole and a reluctant home. Villenueve bounces the narrative between the two – gunshots echo through the air as teenagers calmly play handball in the wreckage of an explosion – and Deakins’ lens makes it all feel real.

And sadly, it is.

Sicario marks the next progression of one of the most exciting filmmakers in the business. Villenueve wrings the best out of every level of production, and never has it been so polished, so exciting, as in this masterful film. What should be well-worn territory feels urgent, and what could have been a boilerplate thriller is a showcase for some of the strongest talent in cinema. Sicario is the real deal, and if you can stomach it, you absolutely should not miss it.

Sicario opens today in Philly area theaters.

Official site.

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