Movie Review: 'Sicario' (2015)

On a technical level, Denis Villeneuve’s cagey thriller is a mesmeric spectacle of near perfection. Taut with a laser precision and deafening focus, “Sicario” revolves around the work of a government task force, policing the war on drugs at the U.S./Mexico border and their reluctant new recruit Kate Macer (Emily Blunt).

Suspicious from the start, Kate's fears grow more and more intense as she’s plunged into legally questionable waters that challenge her idealism to its very core. Left to question the black, white and grey area where law enforcement collides with the criminal element, she is forced to wrestle with the age old conundrum of whether the “end justifies the means”.

Kate’s odyssey into the tangled web of police politics proves a harrowing ride that exacts more questions than it does answers. Enticing its audience to inquiry about what they witness as much as its protagonist does.

As intense and immersive as “Sicario” can be, it finds trouble with a narrative that reveals its conspiratorial leanings from the start, never giving the sense that a veil was in need of lifting in the first place. Its main character is distrustful from the beginning and her instinctive wariness, borders on paranoia at first glance. She comes in with a chip on her shoulder and with little cause to justify it.

She immediately hones in with grave suspicion against the quietly imposing, Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), whose only sin upon their initial interactions is not being an overly expressive or open individual. It’s difficult to relate to her obsessive distrust of him, without having the context that as our heroine, she’s been exclusively vested with preternatural powers of insight. Otherwise it is nearly irreconcilable.

While Blunt’s Kate is pushy, downbeat and grating, Del Toro’s Alejandro is captivatingly mysterious with a dark edge that subtly hints at an internal storm. It his character and Del Toro’s portrayal that steals the show; imbuing “Sicario” with an air of electrifying intrigue that would have otherwise been non-existent.

Silent throughout most of the movie, Del Toro proves why he is one of the few actors, who can handle the challenge. In this rarified instance, words and exorbitant explanations would have been a waste as his quiet performance singularly embodies the ominous bent of the film. 

Emily Blunt gives a strong performance as well, holding her own against him and allowing her character to be as exposed in one breath as she is defiant in the next. The aggravating nature of Kate's personality makes it hard for Blunt to carve out the likable heroine, others would’ve been tempted to portray and that’s part of what is so endearing about her take on the role. She’s not trying to be likable; she’s trying to be real and she succeeds.

Josh Brolin on the other hand, overly relies on chewing gum with his mouth open to signify his character’s unnerving foreboding. It’s a choice that irritates more than it achieves the presumed effect.

“Sicario” reteams Villeneuve with famed cinematographer Roger Deakins, whom he collaborated with on the 2013 suspense drama “Prisoners”. As they proved in that film, their work together is visually seamless. Deakins brings a brooding prowess to every shot, creating a character within the film.

This is made no more apparent than in a subplot that is intricately weaved throughout the movie. The mundane nature of what is shown is not necessarily movie worthy on paper but Deakins’ camera work and Villeneuve’s direction give the scenes an immense sense of dramatic weight.

They are scenes which heavily recall a standout sequence in “Prisoners” wherein the camera lingers on Keller Dover’s “prepper” stockpile. It intimated a great deal about its lead character without saying anything at all and the same applies in "Sicario" on a larger scale. 

The highly publicized angle of the “Salt” style gender swap of its lead character doesn’t necessarily impact “Sicario" one way or another. The role is so ambiguous on a gender level one could easily imagine either sex taking it on, as it's clear no changes were made to overtly feminize the character during re-scripting. That said and to its credit, Kate is not shown having impractical combat abilities.

One fight scene in particular, realistically demonstrates her physical vulnerability against a male opponent with greater accuracy than can be found in the recent production of similar fare. This is a huge point in the film's favor, as is the lack of attention made to soften the character's rough edges in an effort to make viewers more open to rooting for her.

Hidden agendas, clandestine finagling and grizzly gun battles are all facets that comprise an articulate rumination on the aforementioned puzzle of an “end justifies the means” philosophy. Villeneuve questions the corrosive tendency righteous pursuits can have on their pursuer, in a manner that probes without preaching and asks more than it answers, provoking a stronger reaction from viewers than it might have otherwise achieved.

“Sicario” meanders, daring to be slow to the point of tedium before igniting in its third act. The fact that act switches gears from one character to another to accomplish that fete gives a tip of the hat as to why it sets itself up like it does. “Sicario” knows what it’s doing and when that notion fully crystallizes, its brilliance is pretty stunning to behold. Rating: 8.1/10