Written by Zac Fanni
Sicario is a film that manifests human impulses as corporeal things, things that seem to arise out of the landscape as forces of nature. Indeed, it is almost impossible to talk about this film without referring to the elemental – this is a film about vast processes, the winds and storms of politics and crime that erode the facade of civilization that we’ve tried to erect over our baser natures. In the film’s own language, this is a ‘world of wolves.’
It is into this world of primal forces that FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is thrown, joining a task force led by the eerily unreadable Matt Graver (Josh Brolin). The goal? To bring down the head of a Mexican drug cartel, by any means necessary. The film’s central tension comes from Kate’s reticence to join a world where vengeance, hate and sadism are as much a part of the body as a hand or a heart. Blunt brings an admirable subtlety to her role: there are no moments of melodrama, as Blunt is able to convey her character’s increasing anxiety with a mere look or gesture. We see all we need to in her expressions, and Blunt always lets us know where Kate stands in relation to what’s happening around her. She is a supremely effective stand-in for the audience – we know as little as she does and, consequently, share her fear about the unfamiliar hellscape that slowly opens itself to her.
If Blunt’s character stands on the precipice of this world, Benecio Del Toro is the perfect embodiment of it: as the amorphous Alejandro, Del Toro exerts a silent presence that lends dramatic pressure to every scene he is in. You never quite know what he will say or do, which makes him as intemperate and elemental as a thunderstorm – his silence absorbs our attention in every scene, and his determination has the momentum of an avalanche, something inevitable and unstoppable. He serves as the perfect foil for Blunt: his determination only serves to highlight Blunt’s hesitance, just as his forceful animalism accentuates Blunt’s capacity for humanity.
The centrality of both Blunt and Del Toro divides the movie in an odd way – the first half of the film takes Kate’s perspective, and it is through her eyes that we see the layers of our familiar civilization peel back to reveal the animal violence underneath. This slow induction into the world beneath our own is when the film is at its most effective: every scene becomes pregnant with the possibility of violence, of the sudden breakdown of social and legal facades. During this half the film’s scope is also quite large in that it seems intent on examining the pernicious relationships between economic inequality, xenophobia and blind government policy.
However, the movie decides to focalize its latter half around the personal background of Alejandro, and we follow him with a new (and rushed) understanding of his background and motivation as he moves against his enemies in this alien shadow world. This shift weakens both halves of the film: Del Toro’s magnetic animalism is vaporized in the clumsy attempt to make him more empathetic, and Blunt is consequently treated more explicitly like an inexperienced outsider. This inconsistency in characterization imbues the film with a sense of ambivalence and incompleteness that was entirely lacking from Villeneuve’s Prisoners, which ultimately prevents Sicario from joining the pantheon of truly, capital-G Great movies. Sicario simply does not do justice to either of the two movies contained within it.
If for no other reason, Sicario is worth seeing just to witness the work of cinematographer Roger Deakins. He gives every scene the exact look it needs: the deep blacks of nighttime scenes swallow you whole, the blue-orange of a setting sun has the feeling of a dream collapsing into nightmare, and the bright sun of midday Mexico only serves to expose the danger that had previously lurked in darkness. You feel as if Deakins has captured a reality of the environments that is deeper and truer than the one you would see with your own eyes, an underlying truth that makes you see the world with an unprecedented clarity. In this way also Sicario defamiliarizes us to our own world, making it seem like an alien planet, a world laid bare, emptied of its pretensions and willful delusions, a world that (in Alejandro’s words) we were unable to see with our American eyes.
In a thankful divergence from the handheld documentary style, Deakins slowly guides the camera to present a deliberate, meticulous exposure of Sicario’s world. Nothing encapsulates this better than the opening scene, where corpses are found behind the walls of an innocuous suburban home – this is a world lying behind the world we know, and Sicario, with the help of Deakins, slowly pushes us under its surface.
Sicario’s score, by Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, serves the same end. In his own words, Jóhannsson sought to make the score sound like it was being pulled out of the earth, and he succeeded: the score is enthralling, terrifying and decidedly alien. Its throbs and persistent tones work in perfect conjunction with the meticulous patience of Villeneuve’s scenes, helping to produce a feeling of terrible inevitability. Jóhannsson’s score is also the perfect companion to Deakins’ camera work – the entire film feels like a Cormac McCarthy novel (Deakins also shot No Country for Old Men) in that the landscape feels like a vista out of time, and the humans that occupy it are as amoral in their violence as a flood or a hurricane.
Sicario is a spectacular piece of filmmaking, and Villeneuve exerts his characteristic patience and control to produce scenes that are absolutely masterful in their construction. There is one particular scene where American forces travel into Mexico to obtain a cartel member, and this sequence is brilliantly composed on every level: the score mirrors and accentuates the growing tension that slowly marches us towards the climax, the cinematography reveals by layers the chaotic violence rotting the heart of urban Mexico, the actors communicate almost completely non-verbally to give you an impression of the interior states lying behind their professionalism, and the editing expertly balances wide landscape shots, aerial shots and close ups to give the scene a sense of scope and scale. While it doesn’t always fulfill its initial promises, this film is a miracle of alchemy: every artist involved is contributing their best work in service of the same cinematic vision, which makes Sicario one of 2015’s most coherent and compelling films.