Take No Prisoners
Thrumming with a violent intensity, Denis Villeneuve’s latest mystery thriller Sicario pulls no punches in its assault on South American drug cartels.After her unit’s latest raid sees the discovery of dozens of murdered and mutilated cartel victims, an FBI tactical officer is recruited by a mysterious joint-taskforce who promise her the opportunity to find the men ultimately responsible for these heinous crimes. Crossing the border into Mexico, however, she soon finds herself questioning whether or not she’s crossed the line, as her mysterious new team appears to be prepared to go to any lengths to succeed in their goal.Ostensibly pitching Emily Blunt’s tough but comparatively naive FBI tac-agent as the focal point, it’s not long before we realise that director Denis Villeneuve is only, cleverly, positing her as a rather confused viewpoint into this fractured world of clandestine black ops and vicious cartel crimes. The deeper she – and thereby we – are drawn into this world, the harder it is to turn away, no matter how dark things get; no matter how many lines are crossed.
It’s not the first time that Villeneuve has entered this kind of blurred lines territory. Indeed his underrated Prisoners – arguably one of the best films of 2013 – revolved around similar themes. They both posit the same question – how far will you go? – only on a different scale. In Prisoners it was with regard to a parent confronting the suspected kidnapper of his children; with Sicario the context is shifted to this black ops taskforce who believe that their mission – to find the elusive head of a violent and out-of-control drug cartel – would yield results akin to finding a vaccine for a disease. The question is: how far should you go?
Undoubtedly championing Emily Blunt’s tough heroine – between this and Edge of Tomorrow I hope future opportunities to lead action/thriller projects come thick and fast, because she’s one of those rare actresses who can balance convincing action beats and tough no-nonsense presence with an innate vulnerability and, of course, drop dead gorgeous looks – Sicario is genius in its sleight of hand shifting of focus between the players. Blunt may be headlining, with Josh Brolin’s engagingly laid-back purported Department of Defence ‘advisor’ seemingly slotting into second place, but it’s actually the man at the back of the room who you should keep your eyes on.
Championing Emily Blunt's tough heroine, Sicario's misdirection makes Del Toro's enigmatic wolf all the more surprising.
You need little more reason to watch any movie than his name attached to the credits, but, truth be told, there are still only a relative few productions that truly make the most out of the charismatic genius that is Benicio Del Toro. He steals the show – despite the surrounding big names – in ensemble packages like The Usual Suspects and Traffic. Capable to playing at the core of the tragedy (21 Grams, Things We Lost in the Fire) or on the periphery (Inherent Vice), he unquestionably enhances every film that he’s ever been in. Even taking things in his stride, he brings more to most movies than lesser actors striving for career best performances, but there are few films which have demanded his A-game.
Sicario sees him brandishing tactical ordinance with the same breathtaking precision as in the underrated gem The Way of the Gun (and, to a certain extent, the flawed The Hunted) but brings a surprising depth of character which few projects have afforded Del Toro the opportunity to embrace. His dark, enigmatic wolf is always a step back from centre-stage, throwing your focus away from him, despite the fact that that same focus appears to be slowly circling back towards him. This may look like Blunt’s baby – her chance to shine off the back of her action-lead success opposite Cruise in Edge of Tomorrow – but secretly, over the course of the film, it becomes clear that this is also (and, perhaps, more importantly) Del Toro’s latest opportunity to remind the world why he’s one of the coolest cats on the planet.
Villeneuve not only brings the best out of his great leads, but he also brings us an striking piece – both visually and aurally – setting the stunning images of acclaimed cinematographer Roger Deakins (who previously collaborated with him on Prisoners, and also shot Skyfall and just about every Coen Brothers film) against the oppressive beats of Johann Johannsson’s suitably overpowering score, which literally adds a near-continuous heartbeat to the entire film.
Shot with understated style, Villeneuve balances the key setpieces perfectly, blending them seamlessly into the rest of the film so that they almost don’t stand out, giving the narrative a more natural evolution and the action beats a more dynamic intensity. Taut and almost unyieldingly tense, there’s no wasted time here; every scene is measured, every shot adeptly framed. And whilst you may think it’s heading this way, it’s not. It’s heading that way, and it always was. The continual evolution of the narrative – charted by Blunt’s character’s slow discovery of the seemingly abyssal depth of the hell that she has gotten herself into – keeps you consistently in the dark, desperate to see round the next corner, but unable to quite make out what, if anything, is lurking in the shadows.
If Incendies, Prisoners, Enemy and now Sicario are anything to go by, the Ridley Scott-less Blade Runner sequel is looking increasingly promising.
Ultimately, though, the measure of Sicario’s supremacy is its ability to leave you pondering broader questions. It doesn’t just take you on a taut, tense ride. It doesn’t just take you to a rather dark, uncomfortable place. It makes you wonder about the necessity of it all. It makes you wonder what’s right and what’s wrong in this dark realm where there appear to be no rules. And in a sea of counterpart Hollywood features that trade unequivocally in black and white; light and dark, Sicario posits the notion of dark vs. darker, and leaves you equal parts drawn to, horrified by, and yearning for more of, this murky world of grey. It’s perhaps that element which, at the end of the day, leaves this striking mystery thriller a cut above its peers and yet another sleeper gem that’s not to be missed.
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