In case you were wondering, SICARIO opens with a card establishing that the term is derived from a Roman slur for violent Hebrew zealots and translates as “hitman” from Spanish. These dual definitions hint at two of the many ideas influencing this far from straightforward story.
When FBI hostage specialist Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is called south of the American boarder under false pretenses by CIA man Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), she soon finds herself swept up in a daring but morally bankrupt mission to bring down the leaders of a prominent drug cartel. Will she, and can anyone, stay on the straight and narrow when facing such corruption and fighting an unwinnable war?
The film presents Mexico in imposing aerial panoramas as a vast, sleeping beast criss-crossed with throbbing veins of traffic. We are gifted with one of the most Roger Deakins-y shots of all time when Matt’s tactical team is crisply highlighted in silhouette against a sanguine sunset. Deakins’ photography becomes more low-key and naturalistic when on the ground, and is usually from Kate’s perspective, focussing on little details she notices about those around her and what they say about their characters – Matt’s wearing of flip-flops at a tactical meeting, Alejandro’s twitching hand as he takes a power nap. Director Denis Villeneuve shows a lot of skill at staging the film’s gritty set pieces, most prominently an operation taking place in the dead of night that is filmed for real with thermal imaging cameras. Though he could doubtless have handled something if larger scale, he keeps these beats brief and to the point, never egregious. The night op scene aside, the explosions and gunshots never come from where you expect, and this, along with Jóhann Jóhannsson’s eerie score makes you permanently on edge.
The cast really are at the top of their game. Emily Blunt finds the right balance between vulnerability and steely determination as Kate begins to realise she is, and always will be, the only person on this team who wants to do the “right” thing. Benicio Del Toro is gifted one of his meatiest roles in years, and he makes Alejandro a fascinating, chilling enigma of a character, someone with far more justification to do the terrible things he does than Matt, who’s just a jerk being jerky (something Brolin has a lot of fun conveying). It’s great to see young British talent breaking Hollywood, and Daniel Kaluuya equips himself admirably here. What’s not great is seeing Jon Bernthal playing exactly the same character he always plays.
We see horrors for sure, but what we don’t see is, as always far more disturbing – just what will Alejandro do to this man that will require an entire water cooler bottle to wash the evidence away? Other things we don’t witness, being kept out of the loop on some key story points keep us in the dark as much as Kate is. The state of bewilderment the tricksy plot often puts us in seems entirely intentional.
There are periods of nigh-on unbearable tension throughout, but of particular note is a long convoy ride through Cartel-controlled territory, with Kate catching glimpses of unspeakable things out of her window, and a stylish Western-style confrontation over a dinner table that forms the film’s climax.
The film ends with the innocents the war on drugs impacts upon. It’s a somewhat heavy-handed image, but powerful nonetheless. Though much of the film is from an American perspective, cutting back to a few key characters caught at the centre of the War on Drugs throughout brings the message home, makes it clear that this is not an American issue no matter how much the US Government might want to play world police. Some might find the loose ends left over unsatisfying, but I always feel stories set here and now and which comment on current events would be selling their audience short if they tried to tie things in a bow. Sicario is just really well crafted, thrilling, relevant, and not quite what you’d expect. SSP