Sicario is a movie that comes at you sideways.
Sure, that’s true of any movie where you have so few clues about what may be around the next corner, but Sicario is, by definition, a very straight forward police-action drama concerning U.S. officials going after some very heavy Mexican drug lords.
This gives us a fairly obvious good-guy/bad-guy shoot ’em up. But watching Sicario, which means hitman in Spanish, is like walking on sand and coming across a sink hole. This defines the sensation of the earth moving with sinister quietude. Just before it gobbles you up.
In this case, the action starts with FBI field agent Kate Macer, played by Emily Blunt, who is involved in a routine bust at a run-of-the-mill house in Chandler, Arizona. But the sand starts shifting right away, as the scene turns into one of the more memorable murder discoveries in movie history.
This opening already puts the audience off balance – as well it might. But it also puts Macer in the position of being recruited for a special task force focused on bringing down the top leaders of Mexico’s drug cartels, the men who make the decisions that lead to horrific murder scenes.
However, something is off and it would be improper for me to give away what that is.
The task force is lead by operations chief Matt Graver, played by Josh Brolin, who is backed up by administrator Dave Jennings, played by silver-haired Victor Garber. Also on the task force is a brooding, apparently shell shocked, former Mexican prosecutor Alejandro Gillick, played by Benicio del Toro.
It should be a clue that Graver turns down a chance to hire Reggie Wayne, an FBI agent with a law degree, played by Daniel Kaluuya, with the snide comment that he doesn’t want any lawyers on his task force. But this is said with sneering aplomb and is greeted with a snicker from others in the room. It appears that he just wants hungry-for-justice types – another hint. He then goads Macer into joining his team, asking her if she wants justice against these awful predators or not.
Needless to say, violence in movies has become as routine as eggs for breakfast. In Sicario, however, every bullet fired has a purpose. When there are bodies on the street, there is no need to ask why the director choose to include that scene. If there is a finger on a trigger in Sicario, there is determination behind it. Villains don’t scream and jump into the air when they are hit. They drop and die. Automatic fire is too fast for speeches.
Why this movie jumps, however, is because there are four Oscar-contenting performances on the screen. First, it is impossible to take your eyes off Emily Blunt. She is the next Jodie Foster, except that she is a bit less intense than Foster. She has the face of a young teenager and balances sullied innocence with determined evil. In this movie, from a law enforcement point of view, she loses her virginity, so to speak.
Josh Brolin has also come into his own. He’s a classic Steve McGarrett type, only he refuses to be typecast. Here, as task force commander, he is walking a thin line – and, again, I have no intention of giving away the reasons why. However, you could say Graver acts like Steve McGarrett on his day off, when nobody is supposed to be looking. Or you could just say, Graver’s name is spot-on, all things considered.
Benicio del Toro has never played a darker role. As Graver’s right-hand man, he is in the drug wars with a clarity of purpose, but he is damaged goods from a professional point of view. He is either troop mascot or a time bomb. But that isn’t how this plays out.
Victor Garber has a role that he should phone in – except he doesn’t. He plays a law enforcement administrator who, one assumes, mostly sits behind a desk. But his performance is both exacting and daring, like the last detail in an abstract painting that brings the whole thing together.
Sicario hangs tough with an excellent script by Taylor Sheridan and solid directing by Denis Villeneuve.
This film is being reviewed as “hard hitting” and “gut wrenching.” But it is more than that. This is an exploration of innocence, a law-enforcement coming of age drama. What’s the next step we take in the war on drugs? First define the word war. We’ll take it from there.