Director: Denis Villeneuve / Screenplay: Taylor Sheridan / Editing: Joe Walker / DP: Roger Deakins / Music: Jóhann Jóhannsson
Cast: Emily Blunt / Benicio Del Toro / Josh Brolin / Victor Garber / Jon Bernthal / Daniel Kaluuya / Maximiliano Hernández
Uncle Sam’s taking names. And popping caps…
Sicario began with a killer script from actor/writer Taylor Sheridan, which took an overview of how Mexican drug gangs had infiltrated the US border, onto which he grafted a familiar trope: a ‘rookie agent’ from an affiliated enforcement agency (in this case, the FBI) gets assigned as an observer to an operation run by the CIA and quickly find themselves out of their depth. Through their disbelieving, dispirited eyes, we see the difference between dealing with the ‘user’ end of the drug epidemic and trying to decapitate the ‘head’ of the problem.
Unfortunately, as becomes clear, that problem is more like a ‘Hydra’: cutting off the head just sees two or more sprouting in its place…
A key twist that lifts Sheridan’s work from the fodder, was making that observer a woman: Kate Macer. As an experienced agent working in hostage rescue scenarios, she’s the unlikely winner of the CIA’s Golden Ticket and granted a ringside seat in their operation. As a result, Kate becomes the moral centre of the piece; a grounded and relatable conduit through which (most) events are filtered. It’s a plot device that gives flight to Sheridan’s vision.
Sicario also marked another collaboration between Director Denis Villeneuve and DP Roger Deakins. An enduring partnership between Deakins and the Coen brothers, has given modern cinema some of its more enduring imagery, but I’d like to think it was Deakins’ work on No Country For Old Men (2008) that inspired Villeneuve to pick up the phone for Sicario. All those bleached-out landscapes, filtered skylines and monochromatic interiors would prove a touchstone here. The world of Sicario is a place that wants to shirk its own identity, with anonymous motel rooms, an unidentified airbase and inoffensive suburbia. It wants to be everywhere and nowhere. The only opulence seen in the picture, happens at the death, when we enter the privileged realm of the kingpin himself. Oh, the irony.
And what of Villeneuve himself? A French-Canadian director of independent ‘arthouse’ film, his move into the mainstream came with the dark, much-praised Prisoners (2013), that was followed by a misfiring problem child called Enemy (2014), a film that no-one talks about anymore. No matter. Sicario was followed by the ground-breaking Arrival (2016) and his latest, a return to a much-loved franchise in Bladerunner 2049 (2017).
Villeneuve was attracted to Sheridan’s script and its approach to the ‘grey area’ of the US – Mexican border; in particular, how a rampant lawlessness on the Mexican side, fuelled by gang corruption of the police and the frictional violence between rival gangs, corrodes a society from within. What’s happening in Mexico now, might spill over into the Southern USA if left unchecked, so the film’s a warning as much as anything. It’s also a tone poem, on how violence begets violence for its own sake. The border’s a place where the lines are blurred and nothing is what it seems at first glance. It was this ambiguity, coursing through Sheridan’s script, that resonated strongest with Villeneuve’s alarmist outlook.
Sicario begins with a knockout blow that, in less capable hands, would be milked as a standout moment but which here, is just the opening salvo of a full-on assault on the senses. We’re in Phoenix, Arizona, watching an FBI SWAT team close-in on a property at the edge of a bleached-out, windblown tract of ‘Suburbistan’. Another team is riding in an armoured vehicle. Villeneuve signals its rapid approach to the targeted house, by having the camera move-in at speed, but he cleverly refrains from showing the vehicle it’s attached to. He then cuts to a wide-interior of the house’s living room, where a young man’s watching TV. There’s a sudden shadow beyond the draped windows and the back of the vehicle slams its way in; its rear door bursts open and a squad of agents burst forth, quickly locking the place down.
It’s a bravura sequence to open with. I bought Villeneuve’s set-up completely on first-viewing, so the bold entrance was overwhelming to watch: yet there’s more to come. The brief firefight blew a hole in one of the plasterboard walls and the team quickly realise the cavities within hold a grisly secret: 42 bodies, each one sealed in a heavy-duty polybag and all showing evidence of mutilation: they’ve discovered a bona-fide charnel house. As the team get their bearings and overcome their shock at the gruesome discovery, the house has one last secret to reveal: the yard’s shed has a trapdoor, that an unwitting cop then opens, thus triggering a booby-trap and detonating a bomb in the process.
A witness to it all is Kate-the-team-leader and someone who, according to her boss ‘has been kicking-in doors from day one’. Yet even here, thanks to Blunt’s investment in her character research, Kate’s professional resolve & detachment is wavering. She loses two men to the bomb, so when she and partner Reggie (David Kaluuya) are dragged before a review board later that day, it’s with a dulled inevitability.
However, there’s to be no investigation. Instead, on the panel, along with her boss and others, sits the as-yet unnamed Josh Brolin who’s interested in Kate’s personal disposition and experience. Just why, will unfold over the course of the film, but I think it’s obvious even here: if she takes up his offer to ‘tag along’ as an observer in his next mission, there’s a strong chance she’ll not return. Kate senses it too, when she asks ‘What’s our objective?’ and gets the following reply: ‘To dramatically over-react’ in the course of expanding ‘the scope of our operation’.
That the role ultimately went to Emily Blunt was an inspired choice, despite pressure from the studio, that it would be better suited to a male actor… But that would be to deny the purity of Sheridan’s intent. There are precious few laughs here and Blunt has to dig deep to convey a sense of vulnerability: a process in which she acquits herself with honour. If Kate is scared, so are we, both subjectively AND objectively and it’s credit to Blunt’s performance that such a reaction is possible. She allows us to invest in her experience and doesn’t disappoint.
Brolin is shrewdly cast as the CIA spook Matt Graver. The actor was reportedly exhausted after shooting Everest (2015) but signed-on after a phone call with Deakins, in which the DP enthused about the project’s ability to conjure some of the magic in their earlier collaboration on No Country. When Roger Deakins calls you, there’s no way you’re going to pass, right? In the event, it was a good call to take, as Brolin excels as Matt, bringing him to life with hints of an interior beyond the glimpses we’re shown: how else to explain his wearing of flip-flops to a senior conference? Such a small touch, but it mythologises Matt’s character, without the need for expository dialogue. Sheridan and Villeneuve are speaking up to the audience and expecting them to draw conclusions on the fly, rather than preaching down to the lowest denominator and why not? It’s a tactic that’s worked for Christopher Nolan after all…
The plot moves on and before she knows it, Kate’s aboard a small, anonymous private jet bound for what she believes is El Paso, Texas, but which actually lands at an equally anonymous airbase near the Mexican border. Along the way, Brolin’s character has revealed a name – Matt – and they’ve added an enigmatic (and jumpy) third passenger: Del Toro’s Alejandro.
If Matt is affable, if not garrulous, his partner is the total opposite. Benicio Del Toro stripped-out much of Alejandro’s dialogue during the shoot, believing the character’s ensuing mystique would only make him a stronger character. Alejandro might not say much, but in Del Toro’s hands, he doesn’t need to: if by a man’s deeds then you shall know him, then it’s fair to say that as depicted by Del Toro, Alejandro is the Sicario (actually latin slang for a hitman). He’s a broken killing machine who’s one mis-step away from a breakdown: and that makes him a compelling, enigmatic screen presence. It helps that Deakins’ camera LOVES the weary mileage registered on Alejandro’s face, but be in no doubt: this is a landmark in Del Toro’s career. For the first time I can remember, we’re seeing the actor in a role that’s really stretching him – and it’s wonderful to see. He’s a personification of ‘evil’ every bit as malevolent as Javier Bardem’s Anton Chiguhr in No Country; the only difference here, is that Alejandro keeps more heavily-authorised company…
What we do know of Alejandro’s character is revealed gradually, like the layers of a peeled onion. In an exercise of controlled cinema, we learn that he was once a State Prosecutor back in Mexico but refused to take bribes from the gangs. As a result, he lost his wife and daughter to a grisly act of reprisal. He now works as a ‘consultant’ for the rival Colombian ‘Medellin’ cartel and is undercover with the CIA to infiltrate and disrupt the same gang that once destroyed his family. Sheridan’s script is very good at keeping such nuggets hidden until the last possible moment, especially this: that the CIA is collaborating with a rival drug cartel..? Such revelations and ambiguities spring from the grey area; a place where nothing is as it first appears… We were warned from the very beginning.
The true nature of the mission is revealed at a briefing on the base, in which Kate learns she’s to be part of a ‘simple in and out’: over the border, into the Mexican town of Juárez, to collect a prisoner cleared for extradition back to the US. Kate’s no fool: on seeing that they’ll be accompanied all the way, by a squad from Delta Force (‘just rotated back from Afghanistan’), she knows she’s no longer in Kansas…
So it proves, for while the actual handover proves uneventful, a traffic jam at the border on their return gives their pursuers an opportunity to close-in. Thanks to Villeneuve’s direction and some elegant cutting from Editor Joe Walker, what follows might just be the most terrifying car-chase ever mounted… at walking pace. Moreover, to this point scenes have played without much of a score, but only because Villeneuve has been holding-back his trump card and he let’s it fly here: what Composer Jóhann Jóhannsson managed to realise, in his sampling of an atonal cello and insistent drum patterns, is akin to a heartbeat – a pulse – of the sequence, capturing its underlying menace and energy. It’s quite remarkable; all the more so, for the sparsity with which Villeneuve uses it as the film plays out; we never get used to it.
I’m also taken with the framing used by Deakins in this sequence; specifically how he captures the snake-like menace of the team’s convoy of black SUVs as they weave through the border. Coupled with the arid, barren landscape either side of the border fence, Deakins’ makes the most of the territory and allows his Director to conjure the mood brilliantly. We’re looking at a war-zone. It might be the US border with Mexico, but it could be Iraq, Afghanistan, wherever.
Look how far we’ve come! We’re now at a place, where the iconography of any desert landscape is almost interchangeable in our collected minds, to images from recent wars… What a sad indictment of our times, that a film Director only has to use such imagery to suggest the connection. He might not be using it explicitly, but the implication is there nonetheless.
From here, Sheridan’s plot stutters just a little, as Kate’s assignment leads her to witness the detention of a ‘Smurf’ – a blonde white-woman in CIA-speak – caught after her daily run to a bank, in which she’s just deposited $9k: the same amount she’s been paying-in every day for FOUR YEARS. It’s obviously laundered drug money, but Matt’s reluctance to arrest anyone, merely to freeze the account, angers Kate. The impetuous behaviour she subsequently displays, gets her into more, err, personal danger: a development that, for me, represents the only weak point of the entire enterprise. Still, it’s nothing to get choked-up over…
All this, is moving us towards Act Three, where plot threads reach their climax: a raid on a concealed tunnel under the border, that begins with an evocative shot of the team walking into a livid Teal & Orange sunset. Matt & the Delta boys need to make enough noise so that Alejandro can get into the country undetected, catch-up with the low-level cartel boss inconvenienced by the bank-freeze and, through him, reach the ‘Jefe’ – the ‘Big Boss’ – for a final reckoning of old scores. I’ve got to say, that Villeneuve’s saved his best work to last, with this sequence. From the flash-bang chaos of the tunnel to Alejandro’s own mini-adventure in the company of a shit-scared cop called Silvio, this is an exercise in pure, adrenalised cinema, with little dialogue and characters revealed through action. Throw-in fluid, expressive set-ups and shots with editing that don’t cause whiplash and the end result is a sequence of a quality seldom seen ‘these days’.
In hindsight, given the talent deployed on this picture, it’s unsurprising that Sicario was so-well received. Lionsgate knew a winning hand when it saw one; disappointing then, that scheduling conflicts meant only Brolin & Del Toro would return for Sheridan’s 2018 sequel: a film lost amidst a record-breaking summer heatwave and mediocre reviews that (probably) reflected the high bar erected here.
Every night you have families killed and yet, here you dine. Tonight should be no different.