One of my favorite filmmakers of late has become Denis Villeneuve, who brings an incredible integrity and vision to each of his films. PRISONERS was a wonderful drama about how far a parent will go to get back a missing child and ENEMY is a mind-bending character drama about a down-and-out college professor who finds out he has a doppelgänger who may not have his best intentions at heart. Both of these movies have very basic, been-there-done-that plots. It is in Villeneuve’s mastery of nuance, tone, and the direction of great actors that these simple plots are elevated into genuinely great films.
His newest film, SICARIO, is his best one yet.
The plot of SICARIO is somewhat basic: An up-and-coming FBI agent is recruited by a covert special ops team to destabilize a drug cartel south of the border. She is tasked with a pair of mysterious Department of Justice advisers who don’t operate under the same tactics and ethics that she does. As they get closer and closer to completing their mission, the layers of its bullshit are peeled away and it’s true, dark nature is revealed.
Villeneuve handles this with as minimal dialogue as he can get away with. Apparently he worked with Benicio Del Toro to eliminate the majority of his lines to make his character more of an enigma to Emily Blunt’s Kate Macer and Daniel Kaluuya’s Reggie Wayne. This is mirrored through the main story of the film. The main characters are kept in the dark as long as humanly possible by the DOJ advisers and the audience is kept in the shadows with them. I wondered if I had missed a line of dialogue or the print of the film had left a sequence out… But that is how the movie is intended. There is no hand-holding in this film. You are dropped into its immediate reality and it is up to you and the main characters to ascertain what the hell is going on. What starts as a frustratingly opaque journey slowly becomes clearer and clearer as Macer and Wayne begin to put the puzzle pieces together.
The opposite is the case with the cinematography of the film. Once again Villeneuve has teamed up with genius cinematographer Roger Deakins to give his film a strong sense of visual geography and scope. While the story and themes of the film are given a slow burn, the movie looks incredible from the first frame. There are sequences where the camera follows along a convoy of SUV’s through Juarez, Mexico and it says everything that the deleted lines of dialogue never would have. There is also a sequence involving night-vision that is a showstopper. He apparently even shot it all with night-vision lenses rather than editing the look in post-production. Little details like this fill out the world and the story being told rather than leaving it up to the dialogue.
The cast is also of the highest order. Emily Blunt leads the team as the dedicated, ethical, and lonely Kate Macer. She is the audience’s P.O.V. character and is our guide through the film. She provides the character with a resilience and vulnerability that makes you incredibly worried for her as she travels further and further down the rabbit hole. It’s a terrific performance and definitely cements Blunt as one of our best working actresses. That rabbit hole was dug and planned by Josh Brolin’s Matt Graver, a Department of Justice adviser whose good old boy charms mask his deeper and more complicated purpose. More than anything else I’ve seen him in, this is Brolin’s “movie star” role. It’s a character you could easily see Brad Pitt or George Clooney playing. Brolin, however, clearly relishes playing the easy-going head of the mission while instilling a confident sense of menace to him. Rounding out the trio of leads is Benicio Del Toro as Matt’s Partner, Alejandro, who is even more of a mystery than his partner. Del Toro is better in this movie than he has been in a while with a character who is clearly more than he seems. He has nightmares about his tortured past, is protective of Kate in a very paternal way, and is capable of extreme violence that is very startling to the rest of the team. His past is a huge key in figuring out the endgame of this mission that the characters are on. I would not be surprised if Del Toro received his next Oscar nomination for this role. There are also some great turns by Daniel Kaluuya, Maximiliano Hernandez, Jeffrey Donovan, Jon Bernthal, and the wonderful Victor Garber.
SICARIO is the kind of adult thriller that we constantly complain that Hollywood is incapable of making and yet here it is. It is serious, uncompromising, and human in a way that few other political thrillers of this type are. It also continues Denis Villeneuve’s ascent to becoming one of the greats of modern motion picture directing.