You ever watch cage fights? Sicario drops you into the middle of a violent battle and you’re completely oblivious to what’s going on. Within seconds your head is pulverized and you’re left shaken. Ding ding! The round and scene are over and you crawl back to your corner. This is what Sicario feels like in a nutshell. Built around brutal moments of violence and tension like a cage match. Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Enemy) is the man in charge of this borderland drug war. Emily Blunt stars as Kate Macer, an FBI agent up against the shadow of the drug cartel. In the opening scene Kate and her team descend upon a house and we’re locked in the claustrophobic firefight with them. At each turn it seems like a bloodbath and death awaits. And there is indeed much blood and death awaiting us in Sicario (in Spanish it’s “hit man”).
Kate is quickly recruited by a secret agent played by Josh Brolin. His sense of humor brings a much need lightness into this grizzly examination of America’s borderland war. But stealing the show is Benicio Del Toro’s even more secretive agent, the kind of guy you see in a bar and can tell within a second that he’s seen some shit. Kate’s a rat in a maze and questions her superiors motives all throughout. An elegantly shot and cut sequence takes us into Mexico in the film’s first act. Helicopter shots and cameras mounted on the back of military vehicles draw us into the sequence for nearly five minutes. Johan Johansson’s pounding industrial score knocks you into submission. A character seems to be talking to us when he says “Welcome to Juarez.” The first half works as a near great genre thriller and the questions surrounding Kate are intriguing. It’s then a big turn when she becomes a surrogate for the audience to follow through this tunnel of morality that’s slowly blurring.
In the second half nuance is traded for powerful thematic storytelling and scenes of tense grizzly violence. A trade that has equal measures of positive and negative. The script buckles under the weight of it’s hefty themes and ambitions, but the filmmaking offers blood soaked, visceral moments. Sicario becomes less a single story about Kate’s treacherous journey into the drug war underworld of America and more of a messy, dirty, kinetic collage of lost morality. I can’t help but think that this would work better as an 8 episode show for HBO.
Heavy political subtext surrounding American policy hang over the film like clouds. The wild second half loses the point of view and control of the first half, but it has an undeniable dark energy. Kate’s character takes a backseat to a more unwieldy plot structure, which contains tense sequences, but Blunt is left with little growth or nuance in her character. Somewhere in this giant narrative tunnel she becomes intentionally inconsequential, which hurts not only the character, but unintentionally the emotional and thematic impact of the film. What began as suffocatingly tense becomes a bit numbing.
The MVP here is most certainly legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins who brings a haunting poetry. His images are able to convey the themes of the film rather beautifully. An image of an American convoy slinking it’s way through the border and into the maze of Jaurez is one of the years best images. Perhaps even better is in the film’s finale as agents are silhouetted against the sky and vanish into the darkness below.
Sicario is a three headed dragon of a film that works best as a genre thriller with multi-faceted conflict, but also offers broad thematic storytelling in the second half. Heavy handed dialogue and themes are the glaring flaws of such a beast of a film. It takes a master to control a dragon like this, and Villeneuve ain’t there yet, but he’ll eventually make something legit great. Somewhere along the way the characters become lost, the violence is numbing and the film’s chances at greatness slip away.
By the time we crawl out of the cage match it’s surprisingly not that surprising, but rather obvious. The filmmaking is superior to the script it’s servicing, which is like a muzzle on this rabid dog. An exceptionally good film with striking sequences and a narrative that rears it’s ugly head between artsy ramblings and standard genre exercises. But it feels like the first must see film of fall. At your own risk, go enter the cage of Sicario.