|Review by Sharon Knolle|
Denis Villeneuve’s devastatingly good new film about the U.S. war against the Mexican drug cartel is not the “crime thriller” you might expect.
Based on the trailers, it appears to feature Emily Blunt as a badass FBI agent who goes to Mexico, takes names and makes a series of big busts.
But if you’ve seen any other films by Villenueve, particuarly 2014’s bizarrely mind-bending arthouse flick Enemy, you’ll realize that a straightforward crime drama is the last thing he’s interested in making.
And while the always terrific Blunt is ostensibly the star of the film, it belongs as much to Benicio del Toro, who will surely be getting an Oscar push by Lionsgate for his best role since winning the Oscar for Traffic. And one stunningly shot night-time raid will surely get Roger Deakins his 13th Oscar nomination for Best Cinematography.
Much of the credit for making key scenes so tense is the bone-chilling score by frequent Villeneuve collaborator, Jóhann Jóhannsson, who relies on the lowest register of cellos and violins. It’s almost a slowed-down, more dread-laden version of Bernard Hermann’s frantic Psycho score, and just as effective at putting audiences on edge.
The film begins with an FBI raid on a cartel-owned house in Arizona. Crack kidnap-response-team leader Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) and her team don’t find the hostages they’re looking for: Instead, they find a house of horrors with body after body hidden in the walls. The camera lingers over each anguished, plastic-bagged face as you realize, like Kate, that this is not what you signed on for.
Although she’s damn good at her job, after she’s recruited for a multi-agency task force to target the cartels responsible for the Arizona body count, she quickly realizes she’s little more than a pawn for special agent Matt Graver (Josh Brolin).
The film’s tagline, “The border is just another line to cross” is an apt one.
Matt and his “consultant” Alejandro (Benicio del Toro) are not only working outside the law, but are nearly as ruthless as the men they’re hunting. But to say that Matt and Alejandro are “outside the law,” is such a clichéd term that it’s almost meaningless to type those words. After Kate tells her boss (Victor Garber) that she won’t be part of a team that’s so far off book, he tells her, “If you’re worried about being out of bounds, don’t be. The boundary has been moved.”
Kate stays with the team, despite her misgivings, since it seems like shaking the tree, CIA-style, is the only way to make any real change.
As Alejandro, Del Toro is a man of few words: Kate’s questions about his background and credentials quickly get shut down. Like Kate, we’re not sure whether to trust the mysterious Alejandro, whom she learns has his own very good reasons for wanting to take down the cartel. Their relationship is the heart of the film: Kate could use a mentor in this confusing new landscape, but it’s not clear if Alejandro’s more likely to save her life or kill her if she gets in his way.
Del Toro is the best he’s been in years as the shadowy Alejandro. Although he was very good as infamous drug lord Pablo Escobar in this year’s Escobar: Paradise Lost, that film was nowhere near as strong as he was. With Traffic, this is his career-defining drug-trade triptych and he’s right at home with the complex morality each film requires.
Sicario is a film that stays with you. The final image suggests nothing ever changes, despite all the killings, all the corruption, and all the best – and worst – intentions. And that’s a chilling thought.