Early on into Sicario, a group of police officers heave and puke upon discovering a tomb of drug cartel victims stuffed into the walls of a suburban house. But even though these warriors-on-drugs lose their lunch, they never lose their heads. The same can be said about Sicario, a blood-soaked, hollywoodized yet still-grounded police flick that maintains a strong sense of direction.
That’s especially important in what is, for the first hour and a half of the film, a fairly slow jog through names and places, constructing a tower of a situation that the final half hour of the film then proceeds to completely knock down. Despite the complexity of the War on Drugs and the confusion of the various cartels of Mexico, Sicario skillfully presents all aspects of its small (fictional) subsection of the War on Drugs story in a way that is never for a moment confusing or hard to swallow. Confusion and constant unexplained name-dropping has been the death and downfall of too many police/espionage/military films, but Sicario avoids this deadly trap, even while its characters often fall into others.
Sicario follows Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), an FBI SWAT team member who tires of fighting drugs in the outskirts of Arizona and accepts an opportunity to plunge into the violent mix near the Mexico-US border. Instead of targeting low-level hit men, she, along with her partner (Daniel Kaluuya), joins up with a Department of Defense advisor (Josh Brolin), a scorned Mexican ex-prosecutor (Benicio del Toro), and a squad of gruff soldiers to form a plan to draw out the cartel’s leadership.
Blunt as a level-headed yet idealistic officer delivers the best performance of her career. Yet despite her intense facade that cracks just enough to let the audience in, she never steals any scenes from del Toro, who plays the role of the dark, mysterious antihero in a way that dodges cliche and stays grounded throughout. Blunt and del Toro combine and clash in the numerous sections of verbally combative dialogue, creating some of the strongest overall scenes, from both an acting perspective and a writing perspective, between two characters that we’ve seen this year. The rest of the cast holds its own, doing all it can to keep up with its stellar leads, but as time goes on their performances will likely fade into the background of their careers, just as they fade into the background of the film.
Director Denis Villeneuve shoots with precision and creates geometrically interesting shots with finesse, mixing up his style in sometimes dramatic ways (like a scene shot almost entirely through thermal and night vision) to compliment Sicario’s rapid shifts from crime drama, to action flick, to realistic war movie, to Bond-ish espionage.
In regards to accuracy in depiction of the War on Drugs? I’m hardly qualified to say, but I can at least vouch for the honesty and authenticity that appear to come through in the decent (although by no means outstanding) screenplay and the robust (but not too action-oriented) pacing.
Sicario should be seen by everyone who enjoys action, everyone who enjoys war films (or doesn’t enjoy them, as is often the goal of the war film genre), and by everyone who wishes to show off their 2015 astuteness at the Oscars in just a few months.