By Jack Ryan, Senior Staff Writer
“You will not survive here. You are not a wolf, and this is a land of wolves now.”
This line from “Sicario,” the latest release by French-Canadian auteur Denis Villeneuve, could easily serve as an epigraph for the film.
No, this is not an uplifting tale of the underdog upsetting the cruel status quo, nor is it an in-depth examination of the socio-political tensions of a tumultuous region. Rather, “Sicario” is a caution sign, a film concerned with the disturbing relationship between the Mexican cartels and American government.
Following a series of brutal events surrounding a kidnapping raid, honest FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), volunteers to work for a federal task force run by Department of Defense adviser Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and his mysterious associate Alejandro (Benicio del Toro). The primary objective of the group, in Kate’s eyes, is to find and eliminate the high-ranking cartel responsible for the opening scene’s savage crimes.
The three leave on what Kate originally thinks to be an investigative trip to El Paso, but, to her surprise, they end up in Mexico on a mission to extract a drug lord.
As they weave their way in and out of their hostile environment, it becomes clear that there is no order in “Sicario.” This anarchistic tone seeps though the film like poison, as soldiers hover the line between mercenaries and marines, seemingly just agencies and persons have private agendas and gunfire and murder feel routine in broad daylight and bleak night alike.
Anyone familiar with Villeneuve’s previous English-language releases, “Prisoners” and “Enemy,” knows how he likes his films — gritty, dark and surprising — and “Sicario” is no different. In attaching us to Kate as our main protagonist, Villeneuve forces us to share her confusion and innocence, adding to the gravity of violence and corruption around her. Here, plot is sacred, and is much better experienced than discussed.
The acting trio of Blunt, Brolin and del Toro is simply amazing. Blunt is beautifully disturbed as a by-the-books agent who is in way over her head. Brolin is at his best when he plays sarcastic assholes, but he’s even better when those assholes have serious power. However, del Toro steals the show with his ominous Alejandro, whose stoicism is only disrupted by the reek of sorrow like alcohol on his breath throughout the film.
“Sicario” is good when it makes us fear for these characters, great when it makes us fear the characters themselves, and damn near perfect when it accomplishes both at once.
Villeneuve showcases masterful restraint in “Sicario,” reaching for grotesque minimalism rather than the graphic overkill typical of crime-action films. In one particular scene, Alejandro walks into an interrogation room with nothing but a water cooler, clearly preparing for some monstrous torture. Instead of letting us visually witness the inevitable atrocity, Villeneuve chooses to divert our eyes to a slow zoom into a drain, backed by composer Jóhan Jóhannsson’s petrifying score, effectively forcing us to imagine the horrors for ourselves.
Roger Deakins once again displays his world-class cinematography in “Sicario,” balancing dismal imagery of the underworld with breathtaking landscape shots of the borderlands. He turns conventional into exceptional — shots like that of a traumatized Kate looking into a fogged mirror are equally gorgeous and moving. He will undoubtedly be a contender when Oscar season comes around, eyeing his thirteenth nomination, and, hopefully, a long deserved first win.
The final act of “Sicario” is particularly harrowing to say the least, taking twists and turns to depths that seem shocking for even a film of this severity. Fortunately, Villeneuve never crosses the line between dark and depressing, with anxious undertones always keeping the story (and our minds) moving.
The thematic core of “Sicario” is most evident in a late pre-raid scene — a battalion of renegade soldiers is enveloped in the silhouetting dim of dusk, as the red, white and blue sky hovers over them like a flag lowering at retreat. As day fades, order dies with it, and, under the cover of darkness, the wolves rise at last for the hunt.