THE BORDER IS JUST ANOTHER LINE TO CROSS.
Canadian director Denis Villeneuve’s first American film, Prisoners (2013), wowed some critics who labeled it a masterpiece. I thought its running time and some convoluted aspects of the script prevented it from brilliance, but was still impressed. Villeneuve’s second American film (after a Canadian-Spanish detour called Enemy, also released in 2013) is more of a knock-out though. Are we witnessing the rise of Hollywood’s next great director of thrillers?
When the FBI hit a seemingly quiet suburban house in Arizona near the border they’re in for a grisly surprise – the walls are stacked with dozens of rotting corpses. Another incident at the house leaves two cops dead. Agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is hired as part of an operation involving several agencies; although realizing that she’s partly kept in the dark, Macer agrees when the agent in charge, Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), tells her that this is a chance to really accomplish something, to go after the cartel figures who are responsible for the violence at the border.
When Macer flies out to a military base together with Graver, she’s also introduced to a man called Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) who reveals very little about himself. Soon, they and a military team are headed across the border to Ciudad Juárez to collect a captured, well-connected cartel member…
Bold, conspiratorial idea
The word “sicario” means “hitman” in Mexico and is a clue to Del Toro’s character, a shady figure whose purpose and motivations become clear in the film’s second half. We’ve previously seen Taylor Sheridan as an actor on various TV shows, especially Sons of Anarchy, but this is his first produced screenplay and it’s quite impressive, offering intricate plotting that doesn’t get too complicated, as well as a bold, conspiratorial idea behind Matt Graver and Alejandro’s mission that is fanciful but still cynically plausible, at least in this context. It’s a very dark, intense look at the problems on the border between the United States and Mexico, one that won’t make you feel like taking a holiday trip south of the border.
The drug issue was successfully depicted by Steven Soderbergh in Traffic (2000), which also starred Del Toro, and there have been comparisons between these films. But Sicario is a more straight-forward thriller that doesn’t have room to portray American families who are affected by the drugs; it does however offer a glimpse of what the conflict does to regular Mexican families in Juárez. Villeneuve and Sheridan’s approach is brutal and Blunt, in an excellent turn, becomes our witness to an absurd and very frightening situation. There are times when the tension is almost unbearable, especially in the opening sequence and the first visit to Juárez. Brolin and del Toro offer great support as the oddly charismatic but frustratingly mysterious people Blunt has to rely on.
As in Prisoners, Villeneuve also gets first-rate help from cinematographer Roger Deakins who takes advantage of the border’s vast desert landscapes. The director also creates a perfectly timed rhythm for the tension; just when we think the movie is about to hit a lull, it’s merely a segue to another intriguing sequence.
Incendies (2010) and Sicario have a lot going on beneath the surface, especially the first one. But they also have in common its director’s amazing skill at how to propel a movie forward. Villeneuve has been mentioned as a candidate for a sequel to Blade Runner (1982). Not a huge fan of the first movie, I’d still say that he has what it takes. After all, the one thing the first movie lacked was tension.
Sicario 2015-U.S. 121 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Basil Iwanyk, Thad Luckinbill, Trent Luckinbill, Edward McDonnell, Molly Smith. Directed by Denis Villeneuve. Screenplay: Taylor Sheridan. Cinematography: Roger Deakins. Music: Jóhann Jóhannsson. Cast: Emily Blunt (Kate Macer), Benicio Del Toro (Alejandro), Josh Brolin (Matt Graver), Daniel Kaluuya, Jon Bernthal, Victor Garber.
Trivia: Followed by Sicario: Day of the Soldado (2018).
Last word: “The movie is about America … how America fantasises that it can solve problems beyond its borders, and about the collateral damage that results … and the legality and moral issues around that … It’s a movie that deals with idealism and realism and the tension between both … It takes place on the Mexican border, but it could have just as easily have been set in Afghanistan or the Middle East or various countries in Africa. In North America, we allow ourselves to do things that other countries can’t afford to.” (Villeneuve, The Guardian)