← Back to Reviews

Sicario (2015)

Directed by Denis Villeneuve

Written by Taylor Sheriden

Starring Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro

You're gliding effortlessly above the faded landscape of hills and valleys that separate the border towns of El Paso in Texas and Ciudad Juárez in Mexico - a border fence sits and defiles what should be a pristine vista. The tension mounts as a deep throbbing orchestral intrusion - not too dissimilar to the one that alerts us to danger in Jaws - fills your ears. Helicopters fly into view, and their sound blends seamlessly with the soundtrack and our mounting sense of dread. You're watching the Denis Villeneuve-directed Sicario, you've just witnessed a house of horrors knock main character, FBI Agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), off balance, and you know things are just going to get darker and more desperate. The film suceeds in doing what every good thriller sets out to do. It has a feeling of uneasiness which sets us all up for a fraught two hours.

That the score evokes Jaws is no accident. Villeneuve wanted composer Jóhann Jóhannsson to give us something primal like that - and for it to blend with more natural (and unnatural) sounds in the film. Jóhannsson himself died in 2018 - an accidental drug overdose being the cause, which is impossible to feel at ease with. After all, Sicario is a film about a drug war - and as with every war in the 21st Century the lines between good and bad, right and wrong, are hopelessly blurred. It's up to us, through the expressive eyes of Emily Blunt, to decide. Josh Brolin's CIA agent Matt Graver may seem laid back and offbeat, but are we being taken for a ride? And what of Benicio Del Toro's mystery man Alejandro? Will we, as he assures us, understand when all of this is over? Excellent performances from them opposite Blunt draw the viewer in. No matter how dark things get, you want to be on their side. You've already seen the alternative in the harrowing scenes which precede their introduction into the story.

Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan has since shown that his excellent screenplay for Sicario was no fluke. He has already been nominated for an Oscar - delivering the impressive script for Hell or High Water - and has thrown his hat into the directing ring. The result, Wind River, was impressive. His Sicario evokes the Westerns of old. He also has an eye for history and nature. Talk of the dusty blood-soaked landscape being that of "the land of wolves" draw on familiar themes of the 'hunt' for Sheridan. "Sicario" itself means 'hitman' in Mexico - but the term goes back to ancient Jerusalem and the Zealots who hunted Romans. Sheridan grew up on a ranch in Cranfills Gap, Texas. He uses what he knows to telling effect, exploring themes that have obviously been eating away at his mind for a long time. His family lost that ranch in the 1990s - cutting Sheridan adrift and leading him by good fortune to produce works like this.

Good fortune is something Sicario has in abundance - along with it's cast, soundtrack and script it has the inestimable talents of cinematographer Roger Deakins working his magic. Deakins himself had nothing but bad fortune the first 13 times he was nominated for an Oscar, his 13th being for filming Sicario. He was finally rewarded for his work on Blade Runner 2049 and 1917 in 2018 and 2020 respectively - but Sicario has some compelling experimentation with a complete lack of light, using infra-red photography. It's very apt when entering the dark heart of Sicario's final act. As you'd expect from Deakins, we're in good hands, and if it weren't for the sensational vistas of The Revenant this may have brought him his first win.

None of this collection of talent would be able to produce anything worthy of merit without Blunt's character working. Villeneuve tells us that with a female lead in a story like this, what might be seen as weakness comes across as strength. Macer is shocked and appalled not only by what she witnesses, but by the lawlessness of her supposed allies. It would be easy to just go along with them - earning meaningless plaudits along the way. But along with her only friend in this tale, agent Reggie Wayne (Queen & Slim's Daniel Kaluuya,) she bucks and strains against a tide that is unstoppable. Blunt shows us a rawness of shock and disgust with her expressive features, and yet is willing to stick to her principles even as we implore her to abandon them. Her sense of right and wrong is dangerous, and she won't survive places like Juárez without becoming as evil as the soldiers of the cartels. It's here that we discover the question that Sheridan and Villeneuve are asking us. How far do these ends justify the means? In that regard, Benicio Del Toro brings the movie home. Alejandro and Macer contrast each other, and the result brings off what the movie was aiming for in expert fashion.

If a film is truly a director's, then we're in good hands with French-Canadian Denis Villeneuve. I was suitably impressed with Enemy and Prisoners. Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 were stupendously large enough to easily go awry, but he emerged with his reputation not only intact, but heightened. His films have a refreshing uniqueness from each other, and we can only hope that the old rule of a director's creative lifespan of 10 years is similarly different from him than others. It has been just over 10 years since Villeneuve arrived on the scene with Incendies in 2010, but Sicario in 2015, nestled between Enemy and Arrival, is a triumph. A dark journey where our heroes are men turned evil, and our protagonist hamstrung by her own principles in a land where principles don't belong. When your opponent fights dirty will you? If you do, then what is left to differentiate the two of you? "You should move to a small town where the rule of law still exists," Alejandro advises Mercer. "You will not survive here." It would seem to me, that the Wild West has returned - and with it a new look at an old genre.