Movie Review: “Sicario”

Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, Benicio Del Toro, Daniel Kaluuya, Maximiliano Hernández, Victor Garber
Denis Villeneuve

One popular web site called “Sicario” an unrelenting horror story disguised as a drug-war action movie. I wish I had seen that movie, because that sounds really interesting. The “Sicario” I saw was a ‘talented but naïve FBI agent falls under tutelage of high-ranking officer of questionable intent’ story that awkwardly morphs into a revenge thriller. It is beautifully directed, it features top-notch work by its three leads, and it is all set to a dazzling, unnerving score (Johan Johannson, who wrote the gorgeous score for 2014’s “The Theory of Everything”), but the film is all undone by a script that isn’t half as clever as it thinks it is.

Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) has impressed many people with her work on an FBI kidnapping task force in Arizona, and is asked if she would be interested in volunteering for a Department of Defense investigation that seeks to track down the Mexican drug kingpin who owns many of the homes in which their raids take place. She accepts, and her new boss Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) tells her nothing about what they’re doing: he simply asks her to watch and learn. Matt’s right hand man is Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), who is valuable to Matt because of his extensive knowledge of the Mexican crime syndicates. Kate quickly realizes that Matt and Alejandro do not play by the same rule book that she does (read: the legal one), and begins to question why they brought her onto this team in the first place. That is when stuff gets real.

Roger Deakins’ cinematography, as usual, is gorgeous, but director Denis Villeneuve was thick with the symbolism. His overhead shots of the Mexican desert were bleached and reeking of death, while his landscape shots (also bleached and reeking of death) had a storm on the horizon nearly every time. In one scene, we even see lightning, but it never rains in the movie. This is a movie about drugs, and the battle to beat the people bringing them into the United States. We already knew that a storm was coming, and that the border is a hostile place. There was no need to constantly remind us of this.

There is a scene where Kate unwittingly provides Matt and Alejandro with a lead, yet it is treated as if she was used as bait to lure in a target. This makes no sense. Matt and Alejandro had no idea where she would go once she left their company, and the way Kate met this lead was at a place suggested not by Matt and Alejandro, but by her friend Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya, whose American accent is arguably even better than Blunt’s). Yet somehow the script credits Matt and Alejandro with the save, because Alejandro happened to intervene and save the day. I’ve typed out three different scenarios in which this might possibly happen, but really, none of them would happen, ever. There is no ‘game within a game’ being played here; it’s just pixie dust to move things to the next level.

This is unfortunate, because Blunt, Brolin and Del Toro do outstanding work here. Alejandro is the best part Del Toro’s had in years, while Blunt shows guts in her most physically demanding performance to date. Brolin gets all the laughs, though. Matt is one of those ‘seen it all’ kind of guys who’s fazed by nothing and rarely raises his voice above bored indifference. It’s a nice contrast to the horrific events he puts in motion.

And maybe that’s the point of “Sicario,” that the best way to play the game of the War on Drugs is with dispassionate resolve. Or, perhaps, it’s just a film that exploits a very real, volatile situation for titillation. It’s quite possible that this film meant to stand for something rebellious as it was written, but as the credits roll, the takeaway seems to be that citizens, and even lower-level civil servants, should just stay in their lane, do what they’re told, let the big boys take care of everything, and for God’s sake do not ask questions. The film’s other takeaway is that unless you’re a full-blown psychopath, you’re weak. I couldn’t agree less with either of those ideas.