Sicario is a thinking man’s crime thriller. Similar to films like Ronin, Heat, and the recent Zero Dark Thirty, this is a film made up of commonplace tropes we’ve seen from the genre for the last 30 years, but it’s the presentation and writing that keep it ahead of the pack. Sicario is slickly directed and sports a screenplay that’s intelligent and timely, yet avoids the pitfall of being preachy. Sicario is not just one of the year’s best, but also possibly the most gratifying film about the Mexican-U.S. drug war since Traffic.
The film starts out with an FBI raid on a drug house located in Phoenix, Arizona. Working with an FBI S.W.A.T. team, officer Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) makes a shocking discovery that unfortunately costs the lives of a few of her teammates. Distraught from the experience, Kate is still asked to join a new task force dealing with an unclear task. Led by Matt (Josh Brolin), we are kept as much in the dark as Kate is about what this team’s objective might be, especially when she is introduced to a mysterious South American man named Alejandro (Benecio del Toro), who Matt says “works for who sent him.”
Like any good crime story, Sicario paints its world grey, rather than black and white. While it’s clear that some characters are authority figures and others are drug dealers, both sides are shown doing reprehensible acts, particularly as the end game is revealed. Written by actor Taylor Sheridan (Sons of Anarchy), his debut feature is not an original script by any means, but it finds substance in exploring the characters in depth. It also has a hell of an execution from the directing end.
French-Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve has had a very impressive track record. While he began his career making independent films like Incendies, he has since become a powerhouse for studio-released films, such as 2013’s Prisoners, and last year’s sadly underrated Enemy. Here, Villeneuve continues to show that he’s a most eclectic director, as Sicario is equal parts exciting, grisly, and human. While the violence in the film is grim, Villeneuve spends ample time with his character nuance to make it effective. We’ll see if he receives any justly-deserved Oscar recognition this season, but his profile is certain to augment even more with the news that he’ll be directing the long-awaited Blade Runner sequel (for which he is an ideal match).
In terms of casting, the film is exemplary as well. While Josh Brolin and Benicio del Toro aren’t weighted under the demand of being shining stars of the film, Emily Blunt gives us what is possibly her most pivotal role to date. The British actress made a leap from rom-coms to action movies with last year’s Edge of Tomorrow, but this film shows that she can play a badass babe with a tormented soul. She really conveys a sense of unease in Kate in her nervous tics, yet keeps it palpable and distant from melodrama. It will be most interesting to see where she goes in her career now, as this film might do for her what Zero Dark Thirty did for Jessica Chastain.