“You’re asking how a clock works. For now, concentrate on the time.”
Every now and then, a director comes along that outshines most of the competition. Amongst a slew of films that all kind of meld into one giant movie when you watch as many as I do, it’s great when you find someone you can latch on to that guarantees quality, or fun, or whatever measure you use to find the ones you love. In recent years, names like Antoine Fuqua and David Ayer have risen up and given me a yardstick to measure my entertainment against. Now, following up his 2013 Jake Gyllenhaal double bill of Prisoners and Enemy, Denis Villeneuve has guaranteed himself a spot on that list for me with his latest film; drug war crime drama Sicario.
After a speedy rise through the FBI’s ranks, Emily Blunt’s bad ass door-kicker Kate Macer has made a bit of a name for herself. A tough agent who spends her days raiding drug dens and chasing the tail end of cartel bad guys trying to make even a slight dent in the war on drugs. After a particularly important raid that turns several shades of nasty, Macer and her partner are dragged in front of the director of the FBI; but instead of raking her across the coals for letting the shit hit the fan, she’s handed the opportunity to spend some time on the other side of the border with a joint task force chasing down an all but invisible drug lord buried in the war zone that is Juarez, Mexico.
Handed over to Josh Brolin’s Matt Graver, a veteran of the war on stuff you can snort and the guy in charge of this little jolly across the border; Macer joins a colourful cast of soldiers, spooks and spies as they head into Mexico to get their hands on a man that can point them in the direction of the local Pablo Escobar wannabe and get the group closer to making a big play or two in the war on the cartels. Tagging along for the ride is Graver’s adviser Alejandro Gillick; a mysteriously quiet man in a suit, quite obviously haunted by his baggage and much more dangerous than he looks. Together, the group are going to do whatever it takes to get their job done and, all things being well, get everyone home in one piece having removed a major part of the Mexican-American drug trade.
Tension is the order of the day with Sicario, Villeneuve has honed his craft over the last couple of years and this film is the culmination of all his work. I mean, if you thought Prisoners was tense and edge-of-your-seat, this flick will have you slipping off of that edge in almost every scene as this tale of bad guys being hunted down by not quite so bad guys plays out along the badlands of the Mexican border. Emily Blunt’s tough chick proving herself in a men’s world has to tow the fine lines between legitimate and illegal, between doing good and doing the right thing, all while searching within herself for the conviction still be an agent on the right side of the law.
The story unfolds at an excellent pace. No sooner are we getting over the imagery of the horrific opening scenes that we’ve been subjected to are we heading into Mexico to start the shady agency’s assault on the drug traffickers. And shady is definitely the word; between Matt Graver’s antics on each side of the fence that doesn’t so much dance along that legal line as it does conveniently forget it’s there from time to time, and Alejandro Gillick’s reserved “consultant” who talks in riddles but, when things go south, shows glimpses of just how lethal he can be; we get to ride along as these men put their lives at risk to do the right thing, whether you or Kate Macer agree with their tactics or not.
To say much more would risk spoilers for a film that should be watched with as little exposure to the story as possible. Not that this films breaks much new ground with its story, but for me to reveal the key points of what isn’t available from watching the trailer would do a real disservice to the film. I would say though, that it’s difficult to pick a stand out part of the movie. Denis Villeneuve’s direction is amazing; the imagery he puts on the screen is as awe-inspiring as it is disturbing, his pacing has the film’s two hour run-time feeling good and brisk and his choices for casting are perfect. The film’s stars do a brilliant job of bringing some of the best performances I’ve seen this year. Ok, so I think Emily Blunt should be handed every role, for every film. I think while everyone is talking about a black Bond, we should actually be talking about a woman; and I think it should be Emily Blunt. Sicario does nothing to change my mind as she pulls out a great performance as the excellent but slightly naive agent trying to understand what’s going on while beautifully side-stepping the feminist/strong woman/we don’t need men argument that so many roles like this one bring up but simply don’t need to happen (just enjoy your films for shit’s sake, not everything needs to make a statement). In perfect contrast to Blunt’s Kate Macer is Benicio Del Toro’s Alejandro Gillick; in my favourite role for Del Toro since The Usual Suspects, this man with a past is equal parts terrifying and awesome! By the end of the film I was ready to get up and cheer for this man that’d been carved out by his past and set loose on the cartels.
The bottom line, is that Sicario is a masterclass in how to build a great thriller. Every scene is oozing with tension, every performance is screaming for awards nods and every shot is beautifully directed. I went in hoping for a half decent flick to try and erase Traffic from my memory, I came out two hours later with a sure-fire top five film of 2015 for my list. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that Sicario is a close to perfect, unmissable film.