Benicio Del Toro Denis Villeneuve

Sicario Review: Violence Pushed to the Side to Show Its Real Impact

Friday, October 02, 2015 Rob Samuelson


Director: Denis Villeneuve
Writer: Taylor Sheridan
Starring: Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin
Rating: Four and a half stars out of five
Available in theaters now

The rock formations and rolling hills look like screaming, anguished faces; a rigged Rorschach test telling the beholder beware. The mouths gape and the eyes melt under the baking Arizona sun. A music cue heavily reliant on two droning minor-key notes pounds away at any sense of security one has left in the world of Sicario. Nothing good can come of this place, but a slippery grasp of something resembling order might be within reach.

This is the environment Emily Blunt's Kate Macer, a by-the-book FBI agent tasked with kicking down the doors of an ever-increasing number of drug cartel safe houses in the greater Phoenix area, finds herself trapped in. She is good at her job, as are the agents who surround her, but competence and conscientiousness are not the only things required to win in the War on Drugs. It is a conflict Sicario paints as ambiguous and vague, unable to be won because there is no clear objective to pursue.

Into that goal vacuum falls Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), a crack U.S. agent of not-immediately-determinable agency affiliation, and Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), a former Mexican prosecutor turned drug war free agent. Graver is a person who absolutely believes in what he is doing, even if he is unable to clearly define what it is to others. He is the type of man who can sleep at night no matter what morally questionable actions he may take during the day. He jaunts around military bases and private planes in sandals and t-shirts, napping on couches and generally taking a zen master's approach to every situation. Nothing matters, therefore everything is all right, especially if he can present a false sense of control to his higher-ups and maybe prevent a few more people from dying. And Alejandro, seemingly with Graver's blessing, has extracurricular activities planned that require playing the many sides of the struggle off of each other.

Kate is recruited to be part of a team ostensibly meant to perform one goal: Close off an underground tunnel used by one of the deadliest cartels to bring their product across the border. But, as with all things related to this battle, obfuscation becomes the name of the game. The tunnel proves exceedingly difficult to even locate, let alone reach, and the procedural police work required to get there allows for an understanding of how hard it is to accomplish anything productive, let alone good, in a world saturated in violence.

But Sicario director Denis Villeneuve does not revel in that violence. He hardly depicts violence in a direct way at all. He is concerned with its effects on those who are present for it. Villeneuve understands that the moment of impact is not the shock of the thing, but rather the response to it that is affecting. A bomb goes off and Villeneuve's instinct is to show the panic and disorientation in the eyes of those who escaped with their lives. Gun deaths happen onscreen and blood is shed, but the cuts are so precise and so eager to return to the faces of the living, often the perpetrators of those deaths, to create an emotional connection to, and empathy for, the deceased no matter their own role in the atrocities around them. The violence wracks most of the living with guilt and shame, not only because of what they survived but because of their part in creating something to survive from and their refusal to abstain from partaking in such acts. And for those without those feelings of regret, they are left with a numb, relentless drive for revenge.

Sicario has one primary fault. It shortchanges the motivation of a primary character by having that character's background explained in a conversation between people who are not him. It is not a reveal so much as an expository obligation tossed out to check off a box that could be so much more satisfactorily checked by that character himself in his shocking climactic scene. As it stands, that sequence prevents his background from achieving its full gravity because the air has already been let out of the suspense balloon.

And yet, that climax is still a masterclass in tension, with Villeneuve's controlled, understated violence occurring on the periphery of the frame after a buildup of horrifying matter-of-factness about the inevitability of the outcome. That it could yet be improved is a slight disappointment, but it is the most minor of letdowns among a sea of exquisite boldness. Villeneuve displays in scene after scene an intrinsic feel for the manipulative nature of the medium, its ability to delineate information to an audience through subjective means. Sicario's lessons about the human response to horror and constant, often futile, attempts to gain control over the world around us are clear and stark. But they are productive in the end, for the film's prescription to change the reality of these urges is a simplification of objectives and a reordering of priorities. 

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