In Sicario, Denis Villeneuve has created another tense, heavily involving yet imperfect film. His 2010 breakthrough Incendies featured a riveting story that was undone by an improbable twist and its own lofty ambitions while Prisoners (2013) had a great performance from lead Hugh Jackman but suffered from a somewhat ugly story. Sicario, Villeneuve’s take on the Mexican drug war, may feel odd in its pacing and storytelling, but excellent turns from its lead actors, combined with some seriously taut moments, see the film through its rougher tics.

As the film opens, FBI agent Kate Mercer (Emily Blunt) and her team make a horrific discovery in a small town near Phoenix, triggering a series of events that find the young agent in over her head with both a group of shadowy government agents and Mexican cartels. Villeneuve knows how to craft a scene fraught with tension, and as Sicario moves from the United States to Mexico and back, the film keeps us on edge not only in its action sequences but in quiet scenes that punctuate the gunfire.

Kate may be our center of consciousness, the rookie thrust into a mad world where she has no footing, but screenwriter Taylor Sheridan juggles a half-dozen characters, none of which get the opportunity for a full coat of flesh. It plays like an updated version of Traffic directed by Kathryn Bigelow. Of course, forcing us to identify and keeping us in the dark with new fish Mercer is a tired trope, and Sicario takes its sweet time before revealing its true intention. It’s a cyclical story of violence in a milieu where good and evil blend into one murky stew of blood and destruction. There is a thrust here, but not too much story.

Sheridan resisted pressure to change Mercer’s gender, and Sicario constantly reminds us of her sex in her relations with the men she works with. Mercer isn’t the gamboling, “told ya so” sprite Jessica Chastain embodied in Zero Dark Thirty. Instead, she is constantly ignored and even physically intimidated by the men on her team. When government worker Matt (Josh Brolin) specifically asks her to join his team after the discovery in the film’s opening moments, Mercer doesn’t know exactly why she has been selected, other than to hunt down a Mexican drug kingpin. We also meet Alejandro (Benicio del Toro), a mysterious man who works with Matt and is clearly suffering from some sort of trauma. However, our discoveries are filtered through Mercer’s, and we don’t learn the truth about Alejandro until late in the game, something especially problematic considering the film makes a sudden shift to his perspective near its climax.

Like Villeneuve’s other work, Sicario wears its pessimistic nature on its sleeve, not only evident in its violence, but also in its revelations about the drug war and what Matt and Alejandro are truly all about. Del Toro gives another smoldering performance, similar to his Mexican cop in Traffic, but this time as a man broken by tragedy. However, nothing is more haunting than Mercer’s realization about the part she has played in the story. Also like Traffic, Sicario’s final image involves Mexican children playing in a sports match. But while Steven Soderbergh left us with a note of hope, Sicario trails off in echoes of gunshots.

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