In 2013, Canadian director Denis Villeneuve made his name mainstream with the both critically and financially successful, Prisoners, a dark and twisted film about child kidnapping and the belief in God. He proved that with such a sadistic and controversial subject matter he was able to get people talking about his film for years to come. On a budget of 46M, Prisoners gave Warner Bros. a gross of 61M by 2015. For an independent film directed by a little known director, that was good news. So in between 2013 and 2015, Villeneuve went even more independent with his cerebral-thriller, Enemy starring Jake Gyllenhaal and...Jake Gyllenhaal
Considered to be one of the most mind-bending and inducing films of all time, Villeneuve was slowly making a name for himself, not to mention his film before all of this, Incendies, which won Best Foreign Film back in 2010. With three titles to his name and a whole lot of credential, Villeneuve had become of the biggest names in Hollywood. Fast-forward to 2015 and his new film Sicario releases, already having been screened at various film festivals only to receive the utmost praise. Sicario stars an exceptional cast: Golden Globe nominee Emily Blunt, Academy Award winner Benicio del Toro and Academy Award nominee Josh Brolin. In addition to a great cast, cinematographer Roger Deakins has teamed up with Villeneuve again, having helmed the director of photography chair for Prisoners. Not only is Deakins returning, but so is Prisoners composer Jóhann Jóhannsson (nominated for best original score for last year's The Theory of Everything). The talent behind this film contains some of the best artists working in film today and Sicario's so-far reputation of being one of the best films of the year puts it under a tremendous amount of pressure. However, it should be stated confidently that Villeneuve is in fact one of the best directors working today because not only is Sicario an excellent film, it is easily and undeniably one of the best films of the year and will go down as one of the best films of all time.
Sicario follows idealistic FBI agent Kate Macer (Blunt) who gets trapped in a world of corruption and distrust when she agrees to help take down the Mexican cartel after witnessing horrifying events during one of her missions. Along the way, she and her commander Matt (Brolin) join forces with Alejandro (del Toro), another agent with a dark past. As they close in on the cartel and the war on drugs on the border, Macer must question every instruction and the morals of everyone on her team.
The opening scene of Sicario establishes what kind of a film we are in for immediately. The bleakness yet beauty of Mexico is filmed astonishingly by Deakins and evokes a certain haunting vibe. In fact this is one of his best visual works yet and we're talking about the man who was director of photography for Skyfall and The Shawshank Redemption. The night scenes are incredibly tranquil and mesmerizing to watch on the big screen. The big action set pieces feel grand in scope and his choice of camera placement and movement continues to wow. There is a scene in the third act that is lit expertly and is very reminiscent of the show finale for Breaking Bad.
Sicario is an intense film, probably will be the most intense of the year (its only competition being The Revenant with DiCaprio). It's dealing with some incredibly heavy themes (corruption, loyalty, honor, morality) and pulls them off magnificently. This is a testament to Villeneuve's direction but also the lead actors' performances. Blunt is all in in this film. There is never a moment of disbelief, she owns every second she's on screen and does so with authority. She commands attention and will most likely be getting a nomination for her work However, del Toro in this film is a revelation. Del Toro won an academy award for best supporting actor back in 2000's Traffic. His performance in this film was masterfully subtle but so so so engaging. He carried Traffic with levity and gravitas on the level of Day Lewis. Hard to believe but ecstatic to report, his performance in this film is acting on another level. Macey is the heart of the film in terms of morals and values but Alejandro is the heart in terms of revenge. Along the way we learn things about his past and why he is on this mission. The third act focuses entirely on him and Del Toro is a master. Without going over the top (similar to Traffic) and never becoming too hallow, Del Toro takes us on this journey with him and watching him on screen is equivalent to a religious epiphany. He is absolutely gripping in his portrayal of a broken man and there's no better word to describe just how great he is other than inspired. Del Toro has proven that he is a world-class thespian but after Sicario, he has seemingly risen to another level.
As we near Oscar season and the summer blockbuster dwindle, we get films like Sicario. This is a film of quality that demands attention. Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan has crafted an immaculate story and treats his characters with the utmost care and respect. While it is immensely dark and serious, there's still heart and the characters are very much relatable. They are flawed, they are broken and as they journey into this world of unfamiliar territory, we are gripping our chairs and biting our nails. Villeneuve's sense of pacing has certainly improved over the years. Prisoners' third act felt jumbled and a tad too long. Enemy's pacing was a long slow burn that did eventually pay off but Sicario is tightly-packed and each new scene presents a new conflict and moment for characters to develop.
It has been a very long time since I've had the opportunity to write a review like this. I rarely refer to myself in my reviews but here I find that I have no choice because I whole-heartedly loved Sicario and wish it the best come Oscars 2016.