Writer: Taylor Sheridan
Cast: Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro
The most complex and perilous issue facing Mexico and US relations in the 21st century is the intricate infiltration of treacherous drug cartels, corrupting every aspect of day-to-day life in border cities like Tijuana and Juarez, and the fierce battle to dismantle these cartels by FBI agents. It’s a complex issue that is incredibly difficult to grasp, let alone to translate onto the big screen. French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve has attempted to do the issue justice in his latest thriller Sicario, presenting us with a story that criticises and sympathises with both sides of the border.
It opens with a wide-angle view of some image of a desolated Tex-Mex suburbia as a group of FBI enforcers emerge upon a single house that looks like any other. But we soon find out, it’s not. The world of Sicario is an ambiguous one where anything could pose as a threat and there’s no certainty that it won’t become a threat in the future. FBI narcotics agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) sees that she isn’t doing enough to stop the influx of drugs over the border by performing singular raids, so along with her partner Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya), attempts to make a big dint in the cartel by going deep inside agency operations. Soon, Kate is caught up in the issue without knowing anything about the situation and is forced to work with two officials, Matt (Josh Brolin) and Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), whom she cannot be so sure to trust.
After making Prisoners and Enemy, two of the most original and gripping thrillers of recent time, Villeneuve has created something more than just a pure good-guy catches bad-guy flick. Sicario is far more complicated than the average thriller presenting characters with no certain moral compass and skewed motivations. The only person we know we can trust is Kate, but soon she is forced to make morally compromising choices in order to advance the fight. Often the audience is asked to question what we do in her situation, and more often than not our own moral compasses would sway towards something more immoral and insidious.
Blunt proves with Sicario that’s she’s not just an actress fit for rom-coms and period dramas. She is playing against type here, with a performance that is brave and physically and emotionally grueling. She has made Kate an all-together sympathetic character, mixing vulnerability with confidence. It’s easily one of the best performances of the year so far. Brolin isn’t given much to work with in his character of a would-be CIA agent; he plays it laconic and a little too relaxed. Del Toro on the other hand hasn’t been this good since 21 Grams; his character Alejandro is maybe a good-guy or maybe a bad-guy, and even at the film’s end you’re not sure which one he is.
Roger Deakins‘ cinematography is, as always, incredible and hauntingly expressive almost making the landscape filled with vast deserts, grimy border towns and seedy neon signs a character within itself. The screenplay (by actor-turned-writer Taylor Sheridan, who recently revealed that he was pressured by producers to change Blunt’s character to male) is intricate and tense, skewing character motivations and giving Del Toro all the best lines. Inspiration for Sicario seems to have come from a number of places; it’s almost as though the film is a mixture of No Country For Old Men, The Silence of the Lambs and Zero Dark Thirty, sharing many narrative and visual choices with those films.
Sicario is a masterfully directed and written thriller about the most complex and pressuring issue facing North America in the 21st century. It’s so good, there’s already a sequel in the works. The film is intricate, polished and impeccably led by gut-wrenching performances from Blunt and Del Toro. Rather than taking sides on the issue, it presents the US and Mexico in both a positive and negative light that provides a balance for the audience to make their own mind up about the more unscrupulous facets surrounding the issue. It’s gripping, complex and beautifully miserable until the very end.