VOD Review: Sicario.
In Sicario, Denis Villeneuve tells a story of drugs and border control through the lens of a horror movie.
When I first talked about Sicario last year in a See It Instead article, I didn’t imagine it would take more than a year to finally review it. With our focus on earlier films from director Denis Villeneuve (Arrival), we finally have a chance to revisit this intensely harrowing crime thriller.
With a subject that is sprawling and complicated, Villenueve pairs down the focus and uses many tropes from acclaimed horror films such as Silence of the Lambs, in essence looking at the actions of the cartels as if they were a classic film serial killer. This distills the action into a game of cat and mouse, and allows a very talented cast to keep the subject fresh and tense.
Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is a top notch FBI agent who works kidnappings and murder cases along a violent stretch of the southern U.S. border. Her latest case makes a grisly discovery: an untold number of immigrant bodies hidden inside the walls of a house and an explosive trap waiting for the police. With the violence drug cartels are willing to use to secure their trade routes across the border escalating, a clandestine team of government operatives offer Kate a chance to strike at the heads of the cartels. She soon learns that the methods used to fight the criminal syndicates are not strictly legal.
Sicario is packed top to bottom with talent. Small roles go to talented television actors such as Jon Bernthal (The Walking Dead), Silvio Hernandez (The Americans), and Jeffrey Donovan (Burn Notice.) Daniel Kaluuya, soon to star in Jordan Peele’s horror film Get Out, gives a strong performances as Macer’s young partner in the FBI. The trio of big names stars really shine in this piece. Emily Blunt is terrific, and acts as the audience’s surrogate, slowly peeling back the layers of intrigue. Josh Brolin plays her arrogant but efficient handler, acting as a foil for our honest and Ernest heroine. As good as they are, the real star is Benicio Del Toro, who is a former Mexican lawyer turned informant who is enigmatic and fascinating.
To Catch a Killer
The aspect of Sicario that stood out foremost for me was how deftly Villeneuve casts his story in the mold of a horror film. The first scene has Macer discover that a supposed kidnapping ring are actually guards for a storage facility where the cartel has walled up mutilated bodies and planted bombs to kill border agents. The music and imagery sets the tone quickly; the cartel, which is vague and amorphous, now feels like a person. In fact, it feels like a serial killer toying with the police.
From there, we get a story that corresponds almost one-to-one with Jonathan Demme’s Silence of the Lambs. A young idealistic female agent is recruited, has to consult and work closely with a brilliant but amoral character (Del Toro), discovers more grisly tokens from the killer, is nearly caught in a trap, and has to pursue the target into a dungeon (which is filmed in night-vision.) The early imagery is even eerily reminiscent of Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal, with artistically arranged grotesqueness.
Like a Hand in Glove
What could have come across as derivative instead feels transformative. We’ve seen many films about the drug trade, some quite exceptional like Blow and No Country for Old Men. To keep the genre fresh, a new angle helps tremendously. Much like Marvel Studio’s films, taking complicated material and stitching it onto an existing frame (Captain America – spy movie, Thor – Shakespearean drama, Ant-Man – heist movie, etc.) can make the story immediately accessible. The same is true for Sicario. What could have been a complicated procedural full of shifting alliances and policies is distilled into a visceral and mesmerizing tale of hunter and hunted, where you’re never quite sure who is in control.
Having waited a year to catch up with this film, I’m glad to have finally seen it. It is beautifully shot, filled with haunting imagery, set to a gripping soundtrack, and filled with great characters. Once again I am impressed with Villeneuve’s ability to tell a story full of emotional impact despite having very complicated subject matter. I think we’re going to be in for a treat when his Bladerunner sequel premier’s next year.