Sicario is a shoot ‘em up. A run ‘n gun. I was ready for good ole’ God-fearing American law enforcement versus the barbaric Mexican cartels and corrupt Mexican cops. But Denis Villenueve, Sicario’s director, understands how badly this could go. How America-centric, clumsy, or downright racist this could be. Yet the only misstep in this movie is the sometimes brooding, Nolan-esque score. Otherwise it’s decidedly something worth seeing, an action-thriller with a social conscience. To top it off, Villenueve has a killer aesthetic, throwing thermal-sight drone shots and desert dusk together without making you think twice about it.
The FBI’s green and by-the-book partners Kate (Emily Blunt) and Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya) join a covert squad of Semper Fi HOO-RAHS and mustached-cowboy Marshals, led by the peculiar “D.o.D. advisor” Matt (Josh Brolin). There is one enemy: the Mexican cartel. There is one goal: “Shake the tree and create chaos” (as Matt puts it). And there is one secret weapon: a chaos specialist, the hair-trigger, steel-nerved Colombian, Alejandro a.k.a. Medellín (a mortifying Benecio del Toro). Through all the shootouts and military-style executions, we discover a man, better yet a thing, set on vengeance, an institution set on control and destruction, and a normal cop set on uncovering a sickening truth.
Blunt is on-edge for most of the movie, as are we. Wide-eyed, she looks like a kid who’s been put in the wrong math class the first day of school. She also shows real depth by completely breaking down when Kate is forced to face the reality of the world she’s been sucked into: a world without rules and without caution for human life.
And that’s Villenueve’s greatest attribute: his care for human life. Throughout all the firefights and high-tension action, you never feel jerked around. You never feel like something has been thrown in for shear shock factor. Each on-screen death becomes more taxing because he leaves some deaths off-screen, deaths that might otherwise make us callous to his message. The shots are crisp and tactical (Villenueve and Roger Deakins, the cinematographer, should get some Oscar attention). There’s no overkill.
But it’s mainly del Toro and Brolin who give the movie its ominous atmosphere. The muted del Toro pulls off evil with his eyes. When he looks at the camera, or even when the camera just steals a look it him, you shiver. He really knows how to underplay outward emotion, letting silence do the talking. But Brolin’s casual, sometimes comic mood might be the most disturbing performance. He leaves a big kill with an excited smirk. He looks more like he just threw a touchdown at the state championships than like he just ended men’s lives. But it’s not unbelievable. It’s just perverse. Matt is beyond the point of caring about consequences or about right and wrong. He only cares about results.
It’s easy to leave this surprisingly powerful film with the impression that America, stabbing hopelessly in the dark, has gone too far to get the bad guys, that we’re good people doing a few bad things, that we’ve made our deal with the devil and turned Alejandro loose. But that’s too easy, and Sicario and Villenueve aren’t about easy. Sicario is about the sweeping costs of Matt’s results. Sicario is about asking if the ends justify the means. Sicario is about asking ourselves: well, are we the bad guys?
Grade: A. For the riskiness. This could have been so bad, but it was damn good. Bravo, Denis. Bravo.