Sicario is the latest movie directed by Denis Villeneuve, who was also behind Prisoners and Enemy. Enemy was, without a doubt, one of my favourite movies of 2014; a completely mind bending experience that just kept on getting better the more I delved into its possible meanings after it ended. I was disappointed that it wasn’t more widely viewed so when hype started building around his next project, Sicario, I was pleased to say the least. He’s a film maker that deserves more attention.
The film introduces us to the FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), who is recruited for a special unit tasked with locating cartel hitman Manuel Díaz who will hopefully lead them to the whereabouts of the Mexican drug lord Fausto Alarcón. Joining the task force means following the leader of the task force Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and working alongside his partner, the elusive and stone faced Alejandro Gillick (Benecio del Toro). At the beginning, we don’t know much about Gillick or the role he plays in the operation, except that he seems to work with unorthodox methods. Macer, with her idealism and play-by-the-book attitude, is a fish out of water in this operation and we follow her down the rabbit hole of horror that is the war on drugs.
The first part of the movie is truly exhilarating and terrifying. With skilful direction and the superb cinematography of the Roger Deakins, each frame looks like a painting, if a painting was a living, breathing thing. From the moment the film starts, it pulls no punches in showing us the horrors of the drug trade and the inhumane effect it has on all the areas it passes through. The part of the movie set in Juarez is edge-of-your-seat film making; each pothole the heavily armoured police vehicles drive over sending a jolt through you, as if you were sitting in the vehicle yourself. The score makes you think we are in Mordor, and the sheer brutality on the streets suggests you shouldn’t be surprised to find orcs running at you at any moment. The tension builds and builds until we find the characters stuck in a traffic jam, a scene which is very probably one of the best of the year.
The problem with the movie, however, is that it peaks right here. All the elements of an outstanding movie are there, great cast (not least del Toro, who stands out), director and cinematography, a story which is more real than you would wish and, yet, somewhere in the middle of the movie, I found myself bored. I really, really tried to suppress the feeling, but there was no denying that my mind was drifting and my hand was twitching for my phone. The movie hits another high note towards the end of the film with an incredibly tense dinner table scene, but the damage had been done by then and I wasn’t fully engaged any longer.
I don’t know if the middle of the movie was actually boring or if it was just that it started on such a high note and then shifted tone abruptly. Maybe, if we had all the character exposition at the beginning, building up to a climax, I wouldn’t have felt so deprived of the adrenaline that surged through me at the start.
What did work for me though, was the way the movie uses Blunt’s character as our introduction into this world. The story, for me, is actually mostly about del Toro’s character and his quest to right the wrongs that have been done to him. But had we been fed his story in a more traditional way, with him in the centre of the movie, the movie would have felt very different. In that scenario, they could have replaced him with Liam Neeson and had him growling at people about his “special set of skills”.
As we see things through Macer, Gillick is more of an enigma and that does keep your interest longer than it otherwise would have. Macer herself is a frustrating character sometimes, but the movie needs a newcomer to this world to remind us of our own humanity and not just get swept away by the violence and chaos.
Sicario is by no means a bad movie. It has a multitude of strengths and in parts displays real cinematic genius. But it was a disappointment for this Villeneuve fan. Will I be watching his next film? You bet! Will I temper my expectations next time around? You can count on it.