It is this time of year that signals the beginning of Oscar season. Meaning that the films released become of higher quality and less of the superhero/action variety. The release of the latest Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Incendies) oeuvre, which was nominated for the Palme D’Or at the Cannes film festival earlier this year, is an anticipated film by cinephiles as it comes with plenty of positive vibes surrounding it. It has become one of the year’s “buzz” films with plenty of talk aimed in the direction of Villeneuve, Taylor Sheridan’s (first screenwriting credit) script and the acting of leads Emily Blunt and Benicio Del Toro.
The story happens in Mexico and along the U.S.-Mexico border though it could take place in several places around the world. It is all about body counts, violence, hidden agendas, and citizens of the United States evaluating whether the means justifies the end in regards to their involvement around the globe. A lesson is geopolitics is what we are served up in this visually arresting package. Every character is flawed and nothing is black and white. Watching you are never sure who is a good guy and who is a bad as they all are painted in shades of grey.
Over the course of his career so far Trois-Rivières native Denis Villeneuve has demonstrated himself more than willing to explore the darker side of human nature. This is dark and filled with violence and gore yet it is still absorbing. Even the cinematography by Roger Deakins (Skyfall, True Grit – 2012), which is excellent and breathtaking at times, plays in the shadows immersing the viewer in the contrast between light and dark depending on the direction of the story. You are constantly in a state of tension that is mixed with wanting to know what happens next. Not an easy watch and a film that you will have you thinking about its moral musings for a long time afterwards.
Yes, the brilliance of the film begins with Sheridan’s tight and tension-filled script and continues from a position of strength courtesy of Villeneuve’s decisions from behind the camera. The real strength of the film is the acting of Blunt, Del Toro and Josh Brolin. They are all good actors and turn in strong and nuanced performances. Lots of times, especially in the case of Blunt, this is done without words rather in a facial expression or body language. This is especially true to the only woman in the movie – Blunt. Simply with her eyes she is able to convey interest, grit and concern. Plus she has enough of a presence that she holds her own in the physical stuff, but never loses her femininity. As for Del Toro he is excellent. So good in his restraint and half open eyes that I cannot picture anyone else in this role.
This is a film with a rather simple story that masks that with all its attempts to make is seem rather murky and complex. FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt – The Young Victoria, Edge of Tomorrow), after leading a team on a raid on a property that reveals itself as a house of horrors containing dozens of bodies, is selected by a group that includes her direct superior Dave Jennings (Victor Garber – Titanic, Argo) to take part in a mission of muddy intentions. The group she joins is led by Matt Graver (Josh Brolin – No Country for Old Men, Men in Black 3), who Kate assumes is CIA though that is never really confirmed, and the mysterious Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro – The Usual Suspects, Traffic). It is sold to her as part of the war on drugs in Mexico, but very soon Kate realizes that she has not been told the truth and is in over her head.
The line between right and wrong is constantly blurry in Sicario (the Spanish word for hitman). We see that the war on drugs does not consist of the good guys vs. the bad guys. Everyone involved fights without a sense of right and wrong and morality does not factor in at all. Villeneuve and his cast do not flinch at all within all this violence and corruption on both sides of the battle. You don’t leave this film feeling any kind of relief and might not sleep better at night.