(It feels so good to finally make time to finish a post I’d been too busy to work on for two months.)
After FBI agent Kate Macer gets drawn into a conflict south of the Tex-Mex border, she learns that the war on drugs is much more complicated, and much more tragic, than any one side could have planned for.
The Denis Villeneuve-directed Sicario—hitman–excels as a thriller, as a setting and atmosphere showcase, and most importantly as a message, whose predictable yet unpredictable narrative delivers endless questions but always works to invite empathy among all its horror.
Sicario is storytelling distilled.
The plot deserves the viewer’s attention but doesn’t overflow with detail–Emily Blunt’s protagonist begins the movie engaging a hostage crisis with a deeply ugly secret and a gory ending. After that exciting but unsettling prologue, with some notably well made blood spurts and gunfights, Kate finds herself selected for a special mission hunting down a drug lord in Mexico. Her bizarre and surely off-protocol ‘briefing’ sets the tone for much of the rest of the movie; scenes like these blatantly want to draw attention to certain individuals, such that the viewer isn’t expected to ask, “What will happen?” but rather, “How far will it go?”
There isn’t much to say about most of the other “characters” in name or backstory, despite most of them being easy enough to tolerate, but the movie defines its own character through its amazing production values and a usually steady pace. Long scenes of set-up, where people are driving or flying from one location to the next, remain compelling due to excellent choices of camera angles (the over-the-shoulder positioning works just as well as it does in many video games) and a suspenseful soundtrack that doesn’t become overbearing. The movie doesn’t force itself to take on more action than the plot can handle, and gunfights remain small-scale yet intense instead of culminating in massive battles that could have run the risk of desensitizing the viewer.
Question everything you see.
As Macer’s hostile encounters–some of them physical, some of them mental–become ever more disturbing, she bears witness to more and more actions that are legally and ethically dubious (including abuse of prisoners) and are sadly out of her control; her position as the film’s conscience and compass remains steady throughout the narrative, but the story places her level of ‘power’ in a very interesting light, in which Kate remains an independent protagonist who can generally defend herself but isn’t always able to effect the kind of moral change she blessedly wants and deserves. But Emily Blunt’s determined if appalled heroine exists in a setting where the only accountability you have is what you bring with you, and too many people against and alongside her simply didn’t bother. This becomes especially powerful in scenes that depict a young family living life as regularly as they can in an environment that isn’t at all appreciative. It’s a strong reminder to never take whatever safety and intimacy we have for granted.
The film’s pacing does slow down around the middle, with some comic relief that feels cute but out of place and eventually leads to a ‘romantic’ arc that is easily the film’s low point, but it earns its keep and becomes totally engrossing viewing in a matter of moments. From that point, the movie does amazing things with the audience’s treatment of “good” and “evil” characters, with some scenes becoming terrifyingly personal while others feel terrifyingly impersonal; one late-film battle keeps visual information at a minimum and excels at making the audience feel helpless to respond or react.
Always be ready to answer for yourself.
So where are the hitmen in all of this? Sicario’s is a story of integrity and honesty in a setting that doesn’t enshrine either of those, and as a result the viewer is continually made to guess where the next truest “enemy” will come from. No side, save usually for Kate Macer herself and a small handful of other individuals, is shown in a strongly positive light, which lends the movie’s true acts of heroism a special appreciation in light of their rarity.
The world on display truly is merciless, and viewers who are sensitive to violence against especially vulnerable targets (or averse to hearing dozens of F-words) may do well to steer clear of what is otherwise a powerful if deliberately inconclusive morality tale; that being stated, while answers don’t often come easy, the viewer gets to walk away with at least a hope that the wicked and corrupt will eventually face accountability on some level for their crimes, whether in a court of law or not. The events that lead to that point are heartbreaking, however, and the closing shot is one of the most powerful I’ve seen in a film in recent memory.
Emily Blunt’s performance is excellent, as I expected from Looper, and the other actors such as Benicio Del Toro and Josh Brolin do a fine job of carrying their own weight. All of the cast members take their respective parts seriously, with numerous characters being given a downright unnerving touch.
Conclusion: High-pressure filmmaking with all the right ingredients
Sicario is both complex and not; you won’t learn a great deal about most any of the characters, including Kate Macer herself, but the influence each of them has in this dark environment, no matter how much or how little, is plain to see.
I’ve been sitting on this review for two months due to being insanely busy with work, but I also had to spend a lot of time processing all that I had witnessed here. This isn’t an easy movie to watch, let alone to write about, but doing both was well worth the effort. This is a picture that should easily resonate with the viewer and remain impactful long after the curtains close. And you might never want to hear the words, “Emily Blunt shower scene again.” Yeesh!
Image credits (property of Black Label Media, Lionsgate, Thunder Road Pictures)