Director: Denis Villeneuve
Major Players: Emily Blunt, Benicio del Toro, Josh Brolin
Out Of Five: 4.5
If you’ve noticed the Mexican border figuring in an increasing number of films, then you’re not wrong: the government has been promoting it to movie makers, after all. But that’s not the only reason. All those miles of vast nothingness dotted with dust smothered towns are perfect for westerns traditional and modern, crime dramas – in fact, anything that needs a vaguely hostile environment.
And if it’s a film about drugs smuggling, then it’s nothing short of perfect. A gift, in fact, to director Denis Villeneuve in his latest, Sicario – in Mexican it means “hitman” – and also to his director of photography, the renowned Brit Roger Deakins.
The story is told through the eyes of idealistic CIA agent, Kate (Emily Blunt), fresh from an especially unpleasant case involving corpses hidden in the wall cavities of a house. With the drugs war escalating, she’s assigned to an enforcement group, tasked with tracking down the biggest drugs lord on the border. Conventional law enforcement simply doesn’t work, so they’ve employed an external consultant, Matt (Josh Brolin) but the group’s methods are at odds with her principles. And as she gets deeper into the mission, her concerns start to escalate.
Villeneuve has crafted his film with care and precision, and that applies across the board, from Johann Johannson’s menacingly throbbing score, to Deakin’s photography, which makes great use of aerial shots of the barren landscape, and the impoverished side of Mexican urban life. There are so many scenes that stick in your mind: the claustrophobic raid down the tunnel is a real stand-out, but the house with the bodies hidden in the walls isn’t far behind. After 12 Oscar nominations and no tropies, could this be thirteenth time lucky for Deakins? We can only hope.
What we’re watching is a modern hell, ruled by drugs and drug money. Nothing else matters. It’s a precarious existence, with naked corpses strung up underneath flyovers and people fearing for their families. And it’s personalised in the film by an ordinary Mexican cop with a football mad son. He’s not a bad man, but his salary isn’t enough to keep his family’s head above water, so he’s tangled up in the drugs racket. Yet, for a large portion of the film, it’s not clear why we’re watching him and his domestic life. We just have to trust Villeneuve to provide the reason at the right time. And he does.
We are in good, strong hands. For starters, he’s mustered a near-flawless cast. Josh Brolin as the unconventional consultant, Matt, with his lazy grin, apparently laid back attitude and flip flops as business wear. But behind closed doors there’s another side to him, still unconventional but definitely not laid back. Alongside him is Benicio del Toro’s Alejandro, a much darker proposition. He appears to be just a heavy but, as the story unfolds, it’s evident he has a much more personal reason for being in the group. Remember, we’re seeing this through Kate’s (Blunt) eyes, but we eventually realise that it’s not her story that we’re watching. It’s his. It’s a smart piece of storytelling, rewarded with a blistering performance from del Toro, who dominates throughout, even when he’s at his most quiet and enigmatic. It’s easily the best thing he’s done in years.
Sicario scores on just about every front going. Visually arresting, directed with intelligence and superbly acted, it’s a thrilling and enormously satisfying experience. Was it two hours long? Apparently. Not that I noticed.
Sicario is released in cinemas on Thursday, 8 October and will be reviewed on Talking Pictures on the same day.