95%Overall Score
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98%

A deep, dark, and intense achievement that brings together stellar performances, lush cinematography, and a heavy score in a package marking a peak in filmmaking this year.

 

Anybody out there who claims Denis Villeneuve is the next David Fincher is onto something. This becomes apparent when watching his 2011 United States breakout, Prisoners, and obvious when watching his newest film, Sicario. Fincher’s cold, calculated, and meticulous style has been a trademark of his films throughout his entire career, and while Villeneuve is still a fledgling director in the industry, his very similar style grows more and more visible with each new release. Like Fincher, he has a subtle hand on every single element in the frame and, because of this, the work he churns out is uniquely his own and uniquely incredible.

 

 

Sicario (Spanish for “hitman”) is a slow-burn, knockout of a film that places Emily Blunt’s character Kate Macer, a by-the-books FBI agent, into the dark and brooding world of Mexican cartel violence and the world it creates. She is surrounded by her own kind, who know way more about their mission than she does. This isn’t exactly a unique premise, but few films in the past have done it in a way that was as controlled and meticulous as Sicario. Kate is pulled from her usual duty of border-patrol hostage situations and “pressured” to work alongside Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), the mysterious but charismatic operation leader, and the even more mysterious Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), an even more enigmatic mercenary with his own agenda, as they delve deeper into the world of cartel violence, broken families, and shady interactions between factions to escalate a feuding war at the border between the US and Mexico. Kate is almost completely in the dark in this mission and tries desperately to understand why it must be done and how they intend to do it, but Matt and Alejandro prefer her ignorance for now.

 

 

Part of what makes Sicario such a great mystery is the fact that the audience is just as clueless about the inter-workings of the mission as Kate herself. As she strives to find out more, the audience follows closely. Such a nasty and shady region of the world is the perfect backdrop for ominous exchanges and inside government secrets, which pepper the world around Kate at all times, including within her own squadron of allies. Nobody in the industry is better suited to capture the feeling of constant danger in close quarters like legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, who shoots the film with the iconic, artistic hand for which he’s been known for decades. The film is an absolute stunner of light and shadows, both physical and metaphorical, and includes the most breathtaking Texas landscapes since There Will Be Blood in 2007. None of this is new, however, knowing that Deakins also shot Villeneuve’s earlier masterpiece Prisoners, to equal effect. Sicario’s bloodlust is one that needs room to breathe and a wide area to show off its nature, and Villeneuve is the director to let it happen. The comparisons to Fincher are sound, but Villeneuve has a tendency to take things a bit further, to let the camera linger a bit longer to really show the audience what they normally hope to avoid. A better comparison would be to Steve McQueen, if he were to focus more on outward violence than internal human struggles. Both tend to linger on what makes an audience squeamish, but that which they need to see. As mentioned earlier, Villeneuve clearly has a hand on every element in the frame, and it shows with how he plays with the audience expectations and emotions. The story may not be the most unpredictable, but the skilled hands at play keep things quietly intense to keep your attention on the now, not the next. Sicario is easily the most intense film not only of the year, but of the past few years. This is made even more effective by the absolutely immaculate score at play by Jóhann Jóhannsson, which adds a brooding sense of alarm that completely envelops you throughout the entire two-hour runtime.

 

Villeneuve has a knack of getting the best out of the actors, and Sicario is no different. The film brings about career-best performances from everyone involved. Emily Blunt is fantastic as the curiously-agitated Kate, whose admirable FBI ethics are stretched as she’s brought deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole of the Mexican drug cartels near the border. Josh Brolin is at his most interesting as the charismatic but enigmatic Matt Graver, who is clearly in complete control of his stance in the agency and takes advantage of it in both good and bad ways. Arguably the best performance is by Benicio Del Toro as Alejandro, which seems like a kind of role Del Toro was born to play. Mysterious, brooding, and observant, his character seems to be a personal embodiment of everything the film is as a physical entity.

 

 

Sicario is an incredible achievement in dramatic cinema and is a film this year needed to see, to the point that it’s hard to find faults beyond small nitpicks. However, I wish Blunt’s character Kate wasn’t cast aside so much near the end, becoming almost a secondary character after leading the story for so long. As an audience, we’re right behind Kate in her journey, sharing her opinions of Matt and Alejandro, so it’s a bit jarring when we’re suddenly forced to leave her and focus on Alejandro. Luckily, the guy is by far the most interesting part of the film, and his scenes happen to be among the most intense in this already unsettlingly-intense film. It’s a fault that more or less exists person-to-person.

 

 

Overall, Sicario is an almost overwhelmingly intense knockout of a film, an authentic piece of filmmaking so carefully constructed it leaves you sweating before the credits roll. Denis Villeneuve has crafted a piece of art that encompasses all that makes filmmaking great, from a pack of career-best performances, mind-numbingly gorgeous and sweeping photography, and a harrowing score that brings it all together, to bring about something of a marvel for the cinema world, something that only marks a high-note in an already incredible and fresh career from a director with a blindingly-bright future.

 

Directed By: Denis Villeneuve

Produced By: Basil Iwanyk, Thad Luckinbill, Trent Luckinbill, Edward McDonnell, Molly Smith

Written By: Taylor Sheridan

Starring: Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, Benicio Del Toro, Victor Garber

Distributed By: Lionsgate

Release Date: September 18, 2015

 

Run Time: 121 minutes

Rating: R

About The Author

Steve Carley

Steve Carley is a Michigan-born lover and resident of the film industry in Atlanta, Georgia. When he's not infiltrating the nearest Waffle House or giving up on the most recent movie-adapted book he can be seen lounging in his apartment complex's pool and regretting the way he wrote his Film Takeout bio.