“Every day across that border, people are killed with his blessing. To find him would be like discovering a vaccine.”
The Mexican drug war is a hotbed of chaos and corruption, with affiliates from all sides vying for control of one of the most profitable – and by extension, bloodthirsty – industries in the world. A world in which the cartels direct the flow of narcotics and in return are met with impossible sums of money and power that can’t help but make others sit up and take notice, which of course if Scarface taught us anything it’s that they are two of the most dangerous vices to be involved in.
Denis Villeneuve’s intense action-thriller Sicario finds itself in the heart of this war as it follows an idealistic FBI agent who is enlisted by an elite government task force official to aid in the fight on the lawless border area stretching between the U.S. and Mexico. With a sadistic script written by Taylor Sheridan, the dreaded score by Jóhann Jóhannsson and the eye-wateringly beautiful cinematography provided by the acclaimed Roger Deakins, Villeneuve has produced a cold and brutal reminder of the darker side of the world we live in.
Emily Blunt plays FBI agent Kate Macer and gives what is probably her single-greatest performance in film with an act that she has been threatening to release upon audiences for years. She was integral to the success of Edge of Tomorrow and here in Sicario she certainly makes her presence known alongside a cast who have been around the block more than a few times. Her mannerisms; the constant look of shock and bewilderment is the manifestation of what we – the audience – feel, as the film slowly and carefully unravels before our eyes. She is the character that we feel the film through and it’s this increased responsibility which makes her performance that much more astounding.
Flanked either side by the ambiguous government agent Josh Brolin and the mysterious Benicio Del Toro, Blunt’s character is in the uncomfortable position of not knowing what could happen next. Brolin plays his role expertly as the enthusiastic yet stern Matt (and he might just be the strongest actor to rock a pair of sandals with a straight face), but it’s Del Toro who steals the limelight with his cloak and dagger performance. His Alejandro is calm and collected on appearance, but there’s also mystery and intrigue bubbling under the surface which is best summarised by his answer to Kate’s question about how cartels operate: “you’re asking me how a watch works,” he says mildly. “For now let’s just keep an eye on the time.”
Every now and then a scene will evoke an image that resonates in your head and before you can work out why you’ve been sucker-punched into thinking this way, you’re hit again. There is one particular sequence in which the film’s central characters are involved in a simple, everyday traffic jam, but with the exception that they are trying to get across the border into the U.S. with an asset. Traffic is at a standstill, while the cars on either side of them may or may not have individuals in them who could pose a threat. Each car inches forward bit by bit as the scene unfolds, while we are left paranoid as to what will happen.
Almost every single scene of this film is packed with tension and terror, yet it all looks so gorgeous thanks to the cinematography of Roger Deakins. One scene late in the film involves the team heading off on a mission as sunset approaches: with the foreground bathed in blackness, the sky is a mixture of dark, deep blue and a burning orange where the land and the sky meet. The team moves forward, descending through that hot orange ember into pitch-blackness, effectively being swallowed up into oblivion.
You could be forgiven for thinking you were watching a slasher movie, what with the over impending sense of dread that lurks underneath. Scenes of Emily Blunt showering alone in her apartment washing away the blood and murk from an earlier clip are reminiscent of Psycho, while the night-vision walk through the borderland tunnels is like something straight out of Alien. There is a constant theme of hopelessness throughout Sicario and a lot of that is down to Jóhannsson’s incredible score, most notably his aptly named track ‘The Beast’, which sounds industrial and relentless.
The story of Mexican gangland culture is one full of terror and intrigue that will continue to be romanticised in Hollywood folklore, but with Sicario we felt at least that we were dropped into a world that is full of hopelessness. Full of corruption and chaos and that no matter what the good guys do their will always be those who are working against them, which is something that this film portrays incredibly with its imagery and performances.