FBI Agent Kate Mercer (Emily Blunt) leads a raid that, while unsuccessful in retrieving the supposed hostages, manages to unearth multiple corpses buried throughout the compound. This find and her expert handle of the situation brings her to the attention of Government Advisor Matt Graver (Josh Brolin). He informs Kate that the Mexican drug cartel is responsible for the murders and that a plan is in play to take down the cartel. Kate must volunteer to be part of this task force and after doing so she is paired up with Special Consultant Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro). Unbeknownst to her, the first mission sees them crossing the border into Mexico and totally disregarding U.S. legality.
Directed by Denis Villeneuve, who also directed the excellent Prisoners, Sicario aims to examine whether ethics has a place within the anarchic world of drug cartels. Emily Blunt’s character Kate is the moral compass of the film. Even though Kate’s job has given her first row seats to the disturbing acts humans are capable of inflicting upon other people, she is still a firm believer and practitioner of the law. She does things by the book, which I think stems from her understanding that in her male dominated line of work she, more than the rest, must show not only extreme resilience but also extreme diligence. So when Kate decides to join the task force, it is a decision made on the bases that this will help her find the people responsible for all those corpses. In other words, she wants justice. The problem arises when she discovers “justice” takes different shapes depending on the situation one is in. If the enemy kidnaps, tortures and decapitates men, women and children and then proceeds to display them in public, sometimes “justice” can only be attained when you stoop down to the enemy’s level. But if that is the case, who are the good guys and who are the bad guys?
It is interesting to see how Kate’s black and white outlook progressively turns grey, and not to spoil too much but I really like the juxtaposition of Kate and Benicio Del Toro’s character Alenjandro. They seem like people on opposite sides of the spectrum, but as the film develops we begin to see similarities arise between them. I think even the characters see parts of themselves in each other, which has to be a frightening thought for Kate. At any case, Emily Blunt’s brilliant performance is one of the main reasons why Kate’s dilemma is so compelling. I like that Emily Blunt hasn’t had a defining role, it gives her the advantage of believably embodying different type of characters. In Sicario, she has minimal dialogue and relies on expressions and body language to communicate both the history of Kate and what she is thinking. Blunt injects her character with a palpable sense of lived-experience and as such feels more like a real person. It is a quiet and effective performance that captures you. Similarly, Benicio Del Toro provides the other standout performance in Sicario. His character is an enigma for most of the film, but every time he is on screen the sense of foreboding and tension increase. He has even less dialogue than Emily Blunt’s character, but just like her he manages to convey a lot through body language. Sometimes, the strength of a character comes from what he or she doesn’t say and that is evident in Sicario.
If you have seen any other film by Denis Villeneuve, (segway to an excuse for me to plug Villeneuve’s Enemy and Polytechnique, which are two incredible films you should watch), then you might be aware of his knack for creating haunting imagery. With Sicario, Villeneuve creates a landscape of dread and tension where even a shot of an inanimate object, like an open window with its curtains gently moving from the breeze, feels destructive (it brings to mind the shot of the tree at the beginning of Prisoners). The camera sometimes linger on places with people just out of eye shot and combined with Jóhann Jóhannsson’s beautifully somber and atmospheric score, the results are eerie. While there are some instances of intense action, they occur sporadically since the film relies more on creating anticipation. Sicario is deliberately paced, opting to spend more time with the preludes to violence than the violence. And it is the preludes that prove to be the film’s greatest strength, because by providing the audience with concrete sense of who these characters are we can actually feel invested when their lives are in jeopardy. There is a palpable sense of danger in the action scenes, which I always say is a must in order for the action to be effective.
Sicario is an outstanding action thriller. Expertly directed by Denis Villeneuve with two outstanding performances from Emily Blunt and Benicio Del Toro, this is a film unlike any other film in theatres now. A different type of slow-burn with periodic bursts of action leading to an intense and unsettling closing twenty minutes. But as exhilarating as this film can be, it is the protagonist’s moral dilemma that provides the most engaging factor in my opinion. This question about ethics and whether one can remain morally just amidst inhumanity is developed thoughtfully and culminates in a refreshingly real way. Other films have dealt with these questions before, but Sicario does it in such a compelling and organic way that it opens up discussion, especially because the characters themselves demonstrate the inherited complexity of what is right or wrong, of what justice is and how life threatening situations tend to blur the lines.