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Of the two primary kinds of physical discomfort during a movie, needing to pee and feeling the pit of hunger in your stomach, the latter strikes me more often and with even more distraction. I walked into Sicario insanely hungry but with one of those fake health bars I’d picked up just before, already lightly unwrapped and ready for eating. I placed it on my lap as the movie began, excited to see what Montreal filmmaker Denis Villeneuve has in store after 2013s excellent double header in Enemy and Prisoners. As I moved out of my seat as the credits rolled and saw my snack fall, uneaten, onto my chair, I realized it took Sicario less than a minute to seize control of my body. With a harrowing opening that hits the ground running by way of a military raid, your attention is entirely under the precise control of Villeneuve, quickly transitioning you from an adrenaline shot of Hurt Locker-esque action into the horror of decayed body tableau.The walls of the house, we find, are lined with the bagged and bloodied bodies of the Cartel, a shocking find all the more due to its location: Arizona, U.S.A.. The drug war is at home, a fight that’s frighteningly domestic, and a wide-shot of the wrecked scene reveals it as just another house in suburbia. One of a hundred.
And that’s just the first five minutes.
Emily Blunt leads a trio of powerful performances as audience surrogate Kate Macer, who embodies every rat in a maze trope in the book. All is not what it seems when she’s recruited into a special task force, the goal of which is to take down a high-ranking Cartel head. She’s told narcotics raids, like the one that serves as the kinetic open described above, are low-level and effect nothing. To make a difference, it’s necessary to aim higher and, curiously, with less precision. So is the battle plan of Matt (Josh Brolin), the Government spook that scoped her out as the best candidate for the incognito but pricey military operation that has so much cash flow they have a private jet. With them is former prosecutor and ominous presence Alejandro (Benecio Del Toro), adorned with a wrinkled suit and played with the kind of performance that comes only a few times a career. It’s his best performance in forever, and as he graduates to near co-lead by the end he risks stealing the picture from Blunt; if she didn’t deliver with equal ferocity the balance of power between their characters would fall apart. Their dynamic relationship and how it develops is key, and they kill it.
With an air of tension so thick and hostile it’s advisable to watch Sicario in a hazmat suit, Matt’s plan of action amps up the intensity with missions that are accurately described as stirring the pot of the conflict with bullets and chaos. After an operation that inevitably escalated into a hair raising firefight, a soldier shows Kate the deadly goal of Matt’s plan: from the view of a military base rooftop they see a Mexican city erupting in explosions and gunfire, something the soldier impassionately describes as “fireworks.” From Villeneuve’s previous efforts Sicario is a huge step up in scale, but, as seen here, the focus remains human.
I don’t dare to label Sicario a fable, but it doesn’t quite take place in our reality. It’s a heightened fantasy with its feet only just above the ground; gritty enough to feel real but removed to function as empowered allegory. The way living legend cinematographer Roger Deakins captures desert terrain and cityscapes like investigating an alien planet, as seen in Koyaanisquatsi, emphasizes the slight non-reality of Sicario’s universe. Moreover, Jóhann Jóhannsson’s pulsing, industrial (and excellent) score has the same effect. It’s an exploitation artsy action movie and not afraid to show it, ambitiously trying to balance genuine big screen thrills with intelligent storytelling, dimensional character writing, and actual thematic discussion, making the film an all-in-one that successfully provokes on every level. In the best kinds of these movies, form and content can submerge into one another. Nobody would say this is subtle, but Taylor Sheridan’s screenplay cast the Government ‘higher ups’ as exclusively white men and the two U.S. characters lost in the mix-Kate and her partner Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya) as minorities- a creative decision that uses casting, writing, and performance with an effective theme in mind.
Like with Prisoners, Sicario has no problem moralizing the grizzly subject matter. The United States’ war on drugs has cost a head-turning one trillion dollars that even after fact-checking the figure sounds like a typo. There’s a definite holier than thou quality to Villeneeve’s movie that may rub some people the wrong way, especially as the political subtext—a rousing indictment of U.S. policy on the matter, but also issues of feminism and abuse of the American people— becomes the actual text by the end. It’s a natural escalation instead of a devolution to preachy soapboxing, but those hoping for the film to have been named Zero Dark Drug War and remain politically neutral will leave the theater annoyed. As a thriller Sicario is one of the best films of the year, but as a heady examination of a complex, multi-faceted conflict, nuance is traded for powerful but thematic storytelling that completely works within its own context.
Heavy handed dialogue sometimes rears its ugly head, and an almost religious devotion to genre tropes reduces the first half to an obvious, if suitably rousing hour of sophisticated moviemaking. After seeing a military convoy enter the Mexican city of Juarez, which elegantly cuts together multiple camera setups including cameras mounted on the turreted vehicles themselves, a character moodily says “Welcome to Juarez.” It’s right out of a Tony Scott movie, a moment of ugly writing that recalls the bad kind of exploitation movie. Moments like these aren’t as rare as you’d like in a movie that’s otherwise assembled with artful grace. But if the first half drives you down familiar paths, the second half, notably the final 35 minutes, takes more than one sharp left into the unfamiliar. And it’s there that Sicario turns sublime and treacherous.
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