By: Anthony Miglieri
In one particularly tense scene in Sicario, the new film from on-the-rise Canadian director Denis Villeneuve, an American task force has just captured a high profile member of the Mexican drug ring they are trying to bust. Bound to a chair with rope, the imprisoned drug lord pleads with his captors, muttering “Yo no hablo ingés.” Approaching the Mexican for interrogation, Josh Brolin’s task force leader Matt Graver replies with satisfaction, “I love it when they no hablo inglés.” After Benicio del Toro’s mysterious Alejandro enters the room to aid Graver, the scene proceeds as one might predict, with Villeneuve cutting away before the interrogation tactics are showcased in their undoubtedly unsavory glory.
This sequence exemplifies the appeal of Sicario. Just like how we’ve seen countless scenes in which a “bad guy” is captured and forced to give up information, most of us are also familiar with movie and TV stories concerning U.S. law enforcement’s attempts to extinguish illegal drug operations. What makes this scene as well as the whole of Sicario a unique experience though, is the precise, enthralling techniques employed by director Villeneuve, writer Taylor Sheridan, and the uniformly excellent cast.
One notable aspect of Sicario is in how it utilizes various perspectives in regards to the action onscreen. For instance, CIA agent Kate Macer, portrayed by Emily Blunt with a skillful mixture of conviction and sensitivity, functions as the conventional protagonist in that we see much of the story through her eyes. Kate’s naivete translates to us as she slowly discovers the tactics of the task force she’s been asked to join. We move right alongside Kate as she questions the morality of the team’s tactics, which often seem to venture outside the boundaries of the law.
Eventually though, as we are given more information about the volatile situation and about the backstory of the mercenary-like Alejandro, the perspective of the wily task force becomes more and more understandable. Although the mission partially involves a personal revenge story, the main objective is a pragmatic one, meaning the ends will justify the crude means, at least to a point. It is ultimately the performance of Benicio del Toro as Alejandro, the best and most developed in the film, that conveys the anguish and violence caused by the drug trade they aim to stifle.
As much as Sicario manages to transcend the status of a mere “shoot-em-up,” it does not fail to offer some visceral action sequences. Heavily utilizing dynamic aerial shots and gritty point-of-view camerawork, Villeneuve frames some stunning, brutal set pieces, especially one involving a ambush in the midst of a traffic-packed highway. As always with cinematographer Roger Deakins, the imagery of the action and landscapes alike look sumptuous enough to hang on a wall.
While Sicario might appear on the surface to be a routine drug bust crime thriller, it deserves to be judged based on the superb subtlety and craftsmanship that elevate the material. Using admittedly familiar ingredients, Villeneuve and his accomplished collaborators have turned a potentially stale subject matter into an existential battle of morality. Sicario, which is revealed to translate to “hitman” in Mexico, gets the job done and then some, leaving us both shaken and pensive when by the time it fades to black.