Sicario (2015) Film Review: Idealism Vs. Realism

Dark, brooding, and thought provoking, Sicario is Denis Villeneuve’s latest film, and it’s just as nihilistic as his other work. It’s likely you’ve seen Prisoners, his first big budget project, but his back catalogue contains some other gems too, like Enemy, Incendies, and Maelstrom.

He’s a director with a good eye for visual storytelling, and each of the films mentioned reflects his ability to craft weighty, character driven cinematic narratives. However, Sicario does stand out, and it’s Villeneuve’s best work to date, although it does borrow from his earlier films.

Cartel Killers

Sicario is a Spanish word used to describe hitmen in Mexico, but the word was first used in ancient Israel. It referred to Jewish Zealots who hunted down and assassinated Romans, they killed from the shadows, historically becoming the first assassins. This context provides an excellent theme for the film itself.

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Emily Blunt as slight, vulnerable, and idealistic FBI agent Kate Macy.

Sicario tells the story of young idealistic FBI agent, Kate Macy (Emily Blunt), drawn into a very literal war on drugs. She works alongside two CIA spooks (Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin), as they conduct night raids, and execute and torture Mexican cartel members with impunity.

For me, Sicario stood out due to its skilful character development. The pacing is excellent, with effective action sequences, each one expertly choreographed and edited, but the sombre core to the film is Kate’s moral dilemma. She’s a successful FBI agent, and she wants to build cases and do things properly.

Her ideals are thwarted at every point by her government ‘handlers.’ They tell her that the world has changed and that there’s no such thing as the rule of law. Now the person who survives is the one who hits first and hits the hardest.

Clandestine Warfare

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Kate’s drawn into a world of clandestine warfare, working alongside a team of special forces. This is an elite and capable unit, and the cartel simply doesn’t stand a chance. But in the subtext, there’s the suggestion that as the US gets tougher and more skilled at killing bad guys, those bad guys adapt and become more capable in return.

Sicario isn’t afraid to point out the folly of using violence to stop violent people. The real problem is illegal drugs. The war will never end because US citizens (20%) snort and smoke drugs regularly. 

We’re introduced to Kate’s story after a particularly gruesome discovery in Phoenix, in ‘the US heartland.’ A cartel, operating under the radar, has killed dozens of people. Her supervisors tell Kate that this is a symptom of a problem, and in order to fix things, she has to go and fight the cartel on their home turf. She’s recruited by two spooks, and transported to a violent world where legalities don’t exist.

Torture, executions, and violence plague her new ‘career.’ It becomes apparent that the US tactics are just as violent as the ones used by the bad guys they’re fighting. Kate’s forced into the moral half light, and it becomes increasingly difficult to define right or wrong.

Excellent Performances

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Benicio Del Toro in Sicario: a competent and ruthless government sanctioned killer.

At the centre of the narrative, Emily Blunt gives a terrific performance as a jaded, depressed, and overwhelmed idealistic FBI agent, and the supporting cast is just as effective. Brolin is an all American career spy, but his methods are less than constitutional, and Del Toro is terrifying as a shady spook, with tragedy and violence in his past, and revenge in his sights for the future.

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US government SUVs entering Mexico to rendition a cartel leader.

But the real character is the film itself, with its tense white knuckle gun fights, it’s screeching SUVs, filled with Special Forces, tearing across the US border into Mexico, it’s summary extraditions, and its clinical executions. It’s a deeply political film, and it reflects contemporary worries about the legacy of Western interventionism, and the wars on drugs, and terror.

Bigelow, Mann, and Ayer

Villeneuve’s film can’t escape comparisons with Michael Mann’s work, and it certainly uses Mann’s lonely atomised characters, alongside his nihilistic tone. There’s also a touch of No Country for Old Men in Sicario’s composition, with the inevitability of violence, and the subtext that the world has changed forever, and we’ve just not realised it yet.

Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty with its procedural driven narrative, certainly seems to have been an influence too, and Sicario uses the same sort of logic to justify torture and violence in order to right the world’s wrongs. And, End of Watch’s story, with its hopeless fight between the police and the cartels, permeates throughout Sicario, too.

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Del Toro, Brolin, and Blunt in Villeneuve’s Sicario.

But Villeneuve’s film is more than the sum of its influences, and it slots into a collective consciousness fearful of the future, where our coping mechanisms have become paranoia, violence, and suspicion. It’s a dangerous mix, and Sicario delves into this murky world and shows just how amoral, how uneasy, and how impossible the fight is.

In Sicario, it’s the war on drugs, but really this conflict could stand for Western experiences in the Middle East, the Contras and the Latin American intervention of the 80s, or any number of covert wars, fought to keep the ‘homeland’ safe.

Sicario is Villeneuve’s Best Film

Sicario is an excellent thriller, with strong character development, well constructed set pieces, and a gripping narrative. It’s one of the better films I’ve seen this year, and it marks Denis Villeneuve as a filmmaker to watch.

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The cinematography from Roger Deakins (No Country for Old Men, Prisoners, Skyfall), contrasts the late night covert missions, with the overwhelmingly bright colours of the Mexican landscape. Lending the film an impression of Kate’s insomniac bleary eyed view of the world in its composition.

Coupled with an ominous bass heavy score, Sicario is a truly nihilistic experience, with paranoia, fear, and violence bleeding from every scene.

It’s a bleak depiction of the modern Wild West, a place where people reach for their guns first and ask questions later, where the rule of law no longer exists, and ideas of right and wrong are seen as naive or archaic. Sicario shows us a glimpse of a terrifying world where only the most violent survive.

There’s nothing hopeful about this film, and the saddest part about Sicario is its apparent truthfulness. This is not an American success story like Zero Dark Thirty. This is a vision of a world teetering on the brink of chaos, with no one to set it right.

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