Sicario / Denis Villeneuve / 2015 / threestar

Active Ingredients: Cinematography; Tension; Ensemble cast
Side Effects: Lurching rhythm; Moralistic third act

Sicario is a tense thriller of murky borders, both geographical and moral. As young female tactical operative Kate (Emily Blunt) gets brought into the very masculine world of Mexican drug cartels and the nebulous network of agencies that fight them, the motives and allegiances of all parties quickly become clouded.

Interestingly, direct Denis Villeneuve (Enemy, Prisoners) focuses on the political machinations of the Mexican drug war on the micro level, without pausing to consider their broader causes or implications. There’s no way out of the violence of Sicario; the decisions and actions of the American operatives are legible but their effects are negligible, mere Bandaids on a massive gash that will never heal.

The film begins as Kate’s, taking great pains to align the viewer with her disorientation as she navigates a new world of interagency forces of questionable legality. The tactic is successful—it forces us to prick up our ears and stay alert during a dangerous operation about which Kate is in the dark—but the lurching rhythm of the film continues deep into the third act.

This identification with Kate, however, shifts throughout the film. Sicario‘s world is, on the one hand, insular (the one attempt to humanize the Mexicans is distracting and ill-conceived) and on the other, vast enough to encompass multiple characters and narratives warring for screen time. Like the protagonists, the film sometimes struggles to locate the strands of the all-encompassing drug war that truly matter, the players and scenarios that truly reveal something central to its unique and disturbing character.

Still, what momentum is gained from the mysteries of the world Kate has entered beyond her paygrade carry the film through its series of exciting tentpole setpieces. If nothing else, Villeneuve has an arresting and unsettling photographic eye, aided by cinematographer Roger Deakins‘ painterly compositions and desaturated yellow color palette. The ensemble cast also helps elevate the material, which reveals itself to be a bit too simplistically moralistic by film’s end. Josh Brolin carries an easy, smarmy charisma and Blunt anchors the emotional core of the film, but it’s Benicio Del Toro‘s mysterious wild card that quietly commands attention.

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