Cops and cartels, midnight raids and public shootouts, blood vendettas and hidden agendas, and a whole lot of dead bodies literally walled up in a house of horrors. If you told me all of this sounds like it belongs in a trashy detective novel, I'd probably agree. If told me it all sounds like it belongs in a trashy movie I'd say, “Hold the phone! Who says the movie has to be trashy?”
And of course, it isn't. French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve insinuates and executes all of these familiar genre tropes with hitman-like precision in Sicario, delivering one of the most cringe-inducing, butt-clenching, excruciating films of the year... And I mean every one of those in the best possible way.
Working from a twisty screenplay by actor-turned-writer Taylor Sheridan (Sons of Anarchy), Villeneuve has crafted an excellent thriller that's every bit as refined (if not more so) as the glossy biopics and period pieces that angle for adult dollars at the multiplex every fall. Along with 2012's Prisoners and last year's Enemy, Sicario further embosses his reputation as a filmmaker capable of elevating even the pulpiest story material with his surgical attention to form and construct.
Now under the direction of an unnervingly casual Dept. of Defense adviser (Josh Brolin) and his mysterious partner (Benicio Del Toro, quietly intense as ever), Kate can only hold on for dear life as she's thrust onto a whole new battlefield in the war on drugs; One made up of gargantuan, writhing border towns and dark, winding tunnels, where her enemies are hiding in plain sight.
An apt casting call for this highly physical role, Blunt exudes just as strong an action-movie presence as her Full Metal Bitch from Edge of Tomorrow. It's an unfortunate shortcoming that she's written less as an active participant in the story than as an audience surrogate, mostly watching it unfold while dodging bullets.
We are meant to be as nervous and appalled as she is by the unethical back channels and by the blind eyes of her superiors. “You are acting within bounds," insists her FBI boss (Victor Garber). "The boundary has been moved.” But as the film spirals towards its bloody climax, it seems more and more that the boundary has been completely erased, leaving us to contemplate who are more monstrous; The traffickers or the feds?
Villeneuve is a master of mood, with a penchant for suspense that rivals Hitchcock. His timing of the film's first jump scare instills the viewer with an enduring dread of what sudden horror will startle us next; A dread which allows him to stretch the tension tighter than a drum for prolonged (practically agonizing) periods of time.
Master cinematographer Roger Deakins (likely en route to Oscar nomination #13) composes every frame with grace and grit. His camera shifts elegantly between POV and objective angles, sometimes within the same shot. When coupled with the atmosphere of Tim Ozanich's sound design – which superbly integrates Jóhann Jóhannsson's stealthily scary music – these images put the viewer square in the danger zone with the embattled narcs. You don't merely feel that they are unsafe. You feel unsafe.
It's more than enough to keep us perpetually rapt, even when the script goes sadistically dark. It's true that the morbidities of Sicario may well cross the line for what general audiences would consider "prestige drama", but a director of Villeneuve's caliber proves that great storytelling knows no genre. The boundary has been moved.
***1/2 out of ****