Cast: Emily Blunt, Benicio del Toro, Josh Brolin, Victor Garber, Daniel Kaluuya
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Writer: Taylor Sheridan
Sicario is an interesting example of how a film with a mostly one-note story and mostly one-note characters can be elevated in the hands of a skilled director. The narrative itself is not particularly remarkable or even memorable but the film does such a good job of depicting it that it somehow becomes captivating to watch. This isn’t to say that Sicario is a badly written film. It has some good lines, some interesting characters and a coherent story. It’s just that the story as a whole is quite unexceptional and would likely have made for a generic film in the hands of a generic director. However, through beautiful cinematography, subtle editing and the clever use of sound and lighting, Villeneuve was able to transform the film into a compelling thriller ripe with tension. I may not remember the ins and outs of the story and how it unfolds but I do remember being thrilled as it happened.
The film takes place within the context of the US-Mexican drugs war where FBI agent Kate Marcer (Emily Blunt), an idealistic agent with a strong moral code, is tired of the nominal raids she conducts that fail to make even the slightest dent in the Mexican cartel drug economy. She is enlisted by Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), the leader of a government task force, to take the fight where it really matters so that she might make a real difference in the escalating drugs war. Kate soon finds herself exasperated by the unorthodox methods the task force employs and by constantly being kept in the dark. Most vexing of all is having to take her orders from Alejandro (Benicio del Toro), an agent with a mysterious past whose brutal and violent approach weighs heavily on her conscience. As Kate attempts to uncover the truth about what this task force is really doing and really trying to accomplish, she falls deeper into a world of darkness and chaos that threatens to engulf her.
Again this story is not particularly noteworthy or outstanding. However I would be remiss if I did not take a minute to talk about del Toro as the fascinatingly furtive Alejandro. The way that he inflicts these cruel, ruthless methods with a cold, uncompromising gaze and a callous, deadpan expression is astonishing to behold. His character becomes all the more captivating to watch as we learn more and more about him and he leaves what is by far the film’s most memorable impression. Blunt as the protagonist does well enough to start with but becomes less and less interesting as the film progresses. Her arc as a naïve, inexperienced agent gradually coming to understand the contorted nature of the mission she has signed up for becomes less compelling as her character fails to exhibit any sign of growth. The lack of development or a refined personality meant that the actions and decisions of her character became more of a chore to follow as my interest diminished.
However the real star of this film is the direction. Villeneuve compensates for the film’s misgivings by having the film shot and constructed in a way that enhances the story. Not only is the cinematography beautiful to look at but also it is employed to communicate information and build tension in ways that other films of this kind do not. One scene near the film’s climax comes to mind where, without giving too much away, a massive raid is conducted and shot in a way that draws the viewer right into the action while still allowing a strong degree of subtlety and subdued tension. This is aided by the skilful way the film edits these scenes and the keen intuition and attention to detail that the film demonstrates through its use of sound. The sound of shells hitting the ground as Alejandro fires his silent pistol adds just as much to the conflict of any given scene as it does to the film’s authenticity. Therefore through artistry and skill the director and his crew were able to transform what could easily have been a standard run-of-the-mill thriller into so much more.
However, for all that this director was able to accomplish through creative ideas and clever techniques, this film is still far from perfect. The story is still quite uninspired and the characters fairly forgettable. It is mainly through the proficient direction as well as the inclusion of del Toro’s brilliant character that Sicario was able to leave a lasting impression at all. Having said that it is nevertheless one thing for an unremarkable film to be well shot and well crafted and another thing altogether for the editing and the cinematography to actually enrich the story beyond what was initially written, something in which Sicario succeeds admirably. It is an accomplishment that deserves to be recognised and deserves to be praised. This film is a strong testament to the assertion that a film is only as good as its director. Denis Villeneuve as it turns out is a very good director indeed.