Denis Villeneuve, one of my favourite Canadian directors, has not made a film I didn’t award at least ***+. So I was eager to see what he would do with Sicario, the action-heavy story of an idealistic FBI agent caught up in a CIA plot to get rid of a Mexican drug-lord.
Emily Blunt is perfect as Kate Macer, the agent in question. Macer, who is stationed in Arizona, leads a kidnap-response-team raid of a house in an Arizona suburb that goes horribly wrong. Tired of the unending violence associated with the drug cartels, Macer is easily persuaded to become part of something bigger: a government task force that promises to take down the drug lord responsible for countless murders.
The task force seems to be led by Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), the laid-back advisor from the Department of Defense. Macer isn’t sure about Graver and his role in the task force, suspecting CIA involvement. But it’s when she meets another member of the task force, the quiet and mysterious Alejandro (Benicio del Toro) that she begins to think she has gotten in over her head.
Macer’s misgivings are confirmed when she discovers she’s been misled and that the mission to El Paso, Texas is actually being carried out across the border in Jaurez, Mexico. The shootout that ends that mission leaves Macer visibly shaken, but it’s just the beginning of the horrors she will face.
Blunt, Brolin and del Toro are all terrific in Sicario. It’s hard to imagine anyone else playing their roles. I wouldn’t be surprised if Blunt and del Toro get Oscar nominations for this. The writing is tight and intelligent, the characters surprisingly well-developed for an action film, the cinematography is outstanding and the menacing score plays a key role in the experience of viewing this incredibly intense and dark film. And I do mean dark, as in stay away unless you have a strong stomach, though the violence is not so much graphic as it is deeply disturbing (as it should be).
I can tell you’re waiting for the ‘but’, so here it is: But what about the story and the meaning behind it? Sicario is in many ways a revenge story, like Villeneuve’s Prisoners. I don’t like revenge stories. Sicario has also been described as nihilistic. I don’t like nihilism, though I can tolerate it in certain kinds of arthouse films. And Sicario has been compared to films like American Sniper and Zero Dark Thirty, two of my least-favourite films of the century. This doesn’t sound good at all.
But here’s a bigger ‘but’: BUT I disagree with critics who describe Sicario as nihilistic and compare it to American Sniper because I know something of Villeneuve’s philosophy and political views. Some critics may have missed it, but I see Sicario as a strong indictment of American engagement in the Middle East (and Mexico), where the CIA and American military act like the world’s police officers and create only more violence and chaos. I also noticed that Sicario exposes CIA attitudes to the drug trade (better for them to control it than to try to end it) that have been critical to world events for decades. And the revenge story adds weight to Macer’s story, which is one of feeling overwhelmed by, and lost in, all the violence around her. Anyone who feels satisfied by the revenge aspects of Sicario watched a very different film than I did. And any film that exposes some of the dark dealings of one of the most evil organizations in the history of the world gets an extra nod from me.
So in spite of (or because of) all the violence in this dark film, I am giving Sicario ****. My mug is up for this likely top-ten film, but remember that you have been warned.