“Sicario” Movie Review

     

     With his 2013 breakout film “Prisoners”, we already knew director Denis Villeneuve was supremely talented and that he has a clear eye for finding and collaborating with the right people both in front of and behind the camera.  “Prisoners” was a gritty, realistic thriller that played on the emotions of a man torn by the sudden disappearance of his daughter and the primal instincts that took over when he becomes convinced he has found her kidnapper.  Villeneuve is exploring some of the same themes in his new film “Sicario”, which takes us into the underbelly of America’s never ending effort in the War on Drugs.  “Sicario” has more than a few things in common with, perhaps, the most notable film on the subject, that being Steven Soderbergh’s excellent “Traffic”.  Both films take a unique approach by telling a story from a number of perspectives, attempting to justify the rogue methods necessary to fight a war where there are no rules.  Both films also feature a stand out performance by Benicio Del Toro who clearly excels within the genre with his scene stealing charismatic persona.  Except here he is even better, as he commands the screen with an ominous shroud of mystery that surrounds his character throughout and the razor sharp confidence he displays in each and every situation.

     It’s this kind of presence by an actor that, along with a taut script by newcomer Taylor Sheridan, holds “Sicario” together when we are not being engrossed by the film’s many impressive action set pieces.  One of which, a sequence where an interagency task force makes its way from El Paso, Texas over the Mexican border into Juarez where they are extracting a high level cartel member and bringing him back to the U.S. for questioning, is a master’s class in how to develop tension and suspense. Both the way the scene is shot by world class cinematographer Roger Deakins (“Fargo”, “No Country For Old Men”)  and edited by Joe Walker (“12 Years a Slave”) brings a certain undeniable authenticity to the proceedings as Villeneuve’s stark vision is brought to vivid and brutal reality.

     The story begins with a raid by an FBI tactical team looking for hostages in a Chandler, Arizona home.  The leader of the mission, Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), takes point as the team rams its way into the living room by way of a massive armored vehicle and systematically begins clearing each room.  When they enter a back bedroom, an armed assailant awaits, forcing Kate to dive to the ground in order to avoid being hit as she calmly shoots and kills the would be cop killer.  Then, someone on her team notices something beyond the hole in the bedroom wall caused by the gunman’s shotgun blast.  As they pull away the drywall, they make a grisly discovery.  Cadavers wrapped in plastic hidden in the walls, several dozen in all.  Right there, you realize Villeneuve means business.  His horrific depiction of torture in “Prisoners” not withstanding, this scene sets the bar for what’s to come as these are normally the kind of third act discoveries you would see in this type of thriller.  With this being the very first scene, the unanswered question asked by one of the characters before a nighttime raid has a very clear answer.  “What is the R.O.E.?” He asks.  The acronym, which means Rules of Engagement, really doesn’t merit anything more than the obvious.  There are no rules.

     In a high level meeting between Kate’s FBI boss and a number of individuals said to be Department of Defense “consultants”, it is determined she is needed as part of a special task force that will take down one of the most notorious cartel drug lords in Mexico.  She reluctantly agrees, if for no other reason she wants closure for the events that occurred on her watch in Chandler.  The leader of the task force is a seemingly laid back agent from an unknown agency named Matt (Josh Brolin).  He seems accommodating, though you get the idea he won’t be conducting business by the book, nor does he explain exactly what Kate’s function will be other than they preferred to have someone with tactical experience.  That qualification, of course, is made loud and clear to the audience when her boss tells the group that the Chandler shooting was her fifth such incident.  You would think she has seen it all, but it becomes quite clear Villeneuve’s intent here is to show that even the most grizzled law enforcement veteran can succumb to the kind of atrocities being committed by the Mexican cartels.

     When Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) is introduced as another consultant along for the ride, Kate immediately becomes suspicious about his methods and his origin.  Who does he work for?  What is his purpose here?  When she confronts her boss about her role on the task force, he simply tells her if she’s worried about crossing boundaries, the boundaries have been moved by people not appointed, but elected.  In other words, the operation she’s a part of has the blessing of the White House, which means she has to continue, even against her better judgement.  Blunt, who has played a battle hardened soldier before in the futuristic “Edge of Tomorrow”, shares a lot of the same character traits as Rachel McAdams’ Ani Bezzerides in the second season of “True Detective”.  She lives in a low rent apartment and has no love interest or any kids.  She doesn’t care about anything material, her partner quips that she needs a new bra, and seems overly, perhaps dangerously, consumed with her job.  And yet she is overcome by what she witnesses as the task force gets deeper into the investigation and the missions begin to blur the line between right and wrong.

     “Sicario” is one of those films where each and every ingredient necessary comes together at just the right moment and becomes something special.  The imagery is especially unsettling as Villeneuve establishes early a visual sense of dread with mangled and decapitated bodies hung from freeway overpasses in Juarez as a message from the cartel and the brutal fashion in which anyone on the wrong side of Alejandro is dealt with.  Always adding tension throughout is Johann Johannsson’s brooding score which may be one of the year’s best. Del Toro’s performance may carry the film with another Oscar caliber turn, but Blunt and Brolin provide the kind of solid ground and consistency necessary to allow Del Toro to have the moments this film will be remembered for.  “Sicario” also makes a very important point about the reality our law enforcement officers face each and every day.  For all of the talk about militarized police forces and some of the bad decisions made by very few, it must be understood that evil lurks among us and in this case right in our own back yard.  In order to keep us safe, police must have the tools necessary to win.  And as Brolin’s character states early on, as long as 20% of our population continues to snort and smoke what these drug lords are selling, it will necessary to fight them at their level.  Where there is no rule book and no policy manual.  GRADE: A