Feels like a million years ago when Steven Soderbergh gave us Traffic, a gritty, dramatic thriller set in the world of drug trafficking. One thing that stood out from that awesome film was the performance of Benicio del Toro, who would go on to win Best Supporting Actor at the Oscars for the role.
Fast forward 15 years, and I’m pretty sure Del Toro has at least another Oscar nomination coming his way. Once again, he plays a pivotal role in a drug trafficking film, this time, Sicario, directed by Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Enemy, and the upcoming untitled Blade Runner sequel!).
I remember loving Traffic at the time, and I love Sicario. It’s one of the tensest, most heart-pounding thrillers I’ve seen in years. Fueled by three magnificent performances, a compelling plot and a dash of political intrigue, it’s the type of film that makes you forget how to breathe — in a good way.
Sicario, a term used to represent a Latin American cartel hitman, focuses on the brutal border war by US agents against drugs coming in from Mexico. The narrative is driven by FBI special agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), who gets in way over her head when she is recruited to join a mysterious unit headed by Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), a Department of Defense consultant. Along for the ride is another consultant played by Del Toro, whose purpose and motives appear to be quite murky.
From the very first sequence in the film you can tell it’s going to be one of those dark, morbid, gripping crime thrillers where lines are often blurred and crossed. The world depicted is brutal and unforgiving, and viewers need to be prepared for some very uncomfortable, chilling and terrifying moments. Villeneuve adopts tactics that are often seen in horror movies, with no shortage of grotesque images, great use of atmospheric silence, and loud artillery noises that can make you jump out of your seat at any second. The tension is executed so well that even during the slower moments you’re still on edge because you remain fearful that something terrible might happen.
All of this ugliness is contrasted by some magnificent cinematography (Academy Awards, take note) by Roger Deakins, who already has 12 Oscar nominations to his name including Shawshank, Fargo, No Country for Old Men, Skyfall, Prisoner and Unbroken. The sprawling aerial shots of Mexico, the desert landscapes, the desolate night views — it brings a quiet beauty that accentuates all the relentless violence and death. Some of the images in this film have been etched deep into my memory.
Another thing worth noting is the film’s use of sound and music. Sicario has a haunting soundtrack by Jóhann Jóhannsson (The Theory of Everything) that’s extremely effective because of how minimalist it is. Each beat adds to the adrenaline without being overwhelming or taking the attention away from the story at hand.
What really makes Sicario stand out, however, is Villeneuve’s ability to humanise each character, no matter which side they are on. Everyone has a weakness, a vulnerability that others exploit. Good and bad is not clear cut — it’s more a matter of your individual point of view, and doing what you think is right and what it takes to survive.
Full credit to Blunt, Brolin and Del Toro for their riveting performances and the casting department in getting it right. After Edge of Tomorrow, it’s easy to see Blunt as a badass, and I love her complex mix of courage and fear as a woman in the man’s world of drug cartels. It really brings a different perspective and tone to the story.
Brolin’s of course solid as always, and he gets to be a little more laid back than we’re accustomed to seeing him as of late. But it is of course Del Toro who steals the show — as much as the show can be stolen from the other two — with his typical “what the hell is he thinking” facial expressions and brooding, physical presence. The dude is just an absolute legend and I can’t wait to see what he brings to the table in Star Wars Episode VIII!
I’ve been racking my brain to try and think of things I didn’t like about this movie. I can’t. It’s not the easiest movie to watch or the most entertaining movie out there, but just everything about Sicario is borderline masterful; I loved the performances, the stylish direction, the cinematography, the sounds, and above all the numbing tension. It is without a doubt one of the year’s best films.
4.75 stars out of 5