“The program for this evening is not new, You’ve seen this entertainment through and through” I can’t resist, a good quote from The Doors, but is feels strangle fitting. Sicario feels very familiar as if you already know the beat if not the words. Don’t perceive this to be a problem, it helps the viewer slip easily into a world we don’t and will hopefully never know. The pointy end of the war on drugs.
Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is an idealistic and possibly naïve FBI agent. When her job leading a hostage recovery team overlaps with the war on drugs she is enlisted into a joint task force run by Matt Graver (Josh Brolin). Matt claims to work for the Department of Defence but is clearly CIA, he works with Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) whose role and origin is shady to say the least.
When you start a review saying how good a film looks it usually means the film itself was pretty but dull. This is far from the case with Sicario, Roger Deakins brings the same beauty to his photography that he did with Skyfall. The images are often disturbing, but boy do they look good through Deakins lenses. But all like the best cinematography it isn’t just about pretty pictures, it is how the more mundane shots are lit and framed to find the required mood. Back to the film itself.
There is a constant sense of dread, melancholy and despair that underlines the film similar to that experienced in No Country for Old Men (2007) and director Denis Villeneuve’s earlier film Prisoners (2013). This we see through Blunt’s character who is both the heart and the moral compass of the film. We as viewers are kept as much in the dark as she is as to the agenda and mandate of the task force. Like her we are also given the opportunity to make our own mind up of the right and wrong of the situation. While she is the heart and soul of the piece, Matt is ringmaster and Alejandro a spectre hanging over proceedings.
The film is full of amazing dialogue that tells us all we need to know with without ever becoming Basil Exposition. One quote that frames the film comes when Kate asks Alejandro for an explanation of what is going on, his response: “You ask how the watch is made. Keep your eye on the time.” Another of his quotes is a little more arch, it is directed at Kate but is also an explanation of the film: “Nothing will make sense to your American ears. You will doubt what we do. But, in the end, it will make sense.” There are two more memorable quotes, one from Matt about why they do what they do, the other from Alejandro (again) about justice. I won’t publish them as they could stray into plot spoilers, least to say, they like the actions of the characters firmly nail their colours to the mast. The film doesn’t preach the right or wrong of the situation, it puts its characters in a scenario and lets the audience decide. This is far more intelligent film-making than we normally get from mainstream cinema.
Anyone who has seen The Wolfman may be understandably concerned by a Blunt / Del Toro reunion, don’t worry, they are both perfectly cast and brilliant as is Brolin. All the characters come across as real people not as sketches whose personality doesn’t stretch beyond the scenario they are in. Emily Blunt continues to show her versatility having done everything from costume drama to sci-fi action via comedy. A special mention must be made for Daniel Kaluuya as Reggie, Blunts FBI partner, he is totally natural and believable in the role, offering a lighter and sometimes amusing angle without ever distracting from the film. He is a funny guy, not the comic relief dropped into a movie to lighten the tone. I could imagine Jessica Chastain in the Blunt role, other than that I can’t think of anyone else who could have filled the shoes (of flip-flops) of the three leads. The same is true of director, Denis Villeneuve, I can think of many top directors that could have done good job but they are sure to have distracted us with unnecessary flourishes. Interestingly the film appears to be based on an original story (early contender for best original Oscar nomination) by actor and first time writer Taylor Sheridan. It is unclear how much the taut storytelling is down to the director and how much the writer, whoever is responsible did a magnificent job.
The film is honest and brutal, even brutally honest, but still manages to revel in its moral ambiguity and uncertainty. This is where a review drops in the but…. However, there is no but, I really have nothing negative to say about the film. It may disappoint a few people as it has been sold as more of an action movie than it is, but that is the fault of the distributors not the film or its makers. It is a solid film that doesn’t put a foot wrong. I don’t think it has the originality or is showy enough to win best picture or director at the Oscars, but it certainly good enough for a nomination or seven.