Sicario English Movie ReviewFeature Film | Action, Crime, Drama
So, Denis Villeneuve's Sicario hit Indian screens this Friday. Even though this move comes merely 3 weeks after its U.S. release, it has felt like months since I've been waiting to watch it. Which is fair, I guess. The anticipation of watching the best of films (and living on one of those weird, distorted planets from Interstellar) does slow down time, coagulating it into a thick paste. Coincidentally, a thick paste is how I'd describe Sicario's narrative structure and pacing -- sometimes meant as a compliment, sometimes not so much.
The 2013 film Prisoners found Villeneuve on top of his game in building a slow-burning suspense drama with as much emphasis on raw emotional drama as on the central hook of the whodunnit mystery that it was supposed to be. Sicario, a Mexican border thriller-drama about a task force that's formed to take down a drug cartel, pretty much follows a similar pattern in building suspense and developing its main characters, but some films just pale in comparison to other, better films.
Anyone who's ever seen a Denis Villeneuve film should know better than to expect a fast-paced, glossy thriller with over-the-top twists and sprawling action sequences. The man is a connoisseur of both art and science: every single shot, scene, sequence is painstakingly mounted akin to the finest art; every action, every dialogue of every character is approached with the thorough brainstorming preceding a scientific invention. Opening a letter isn't just opening a letter; it's a peek into a mystery, a world of limitless possibilities, a revelation that could be life-making or Earth-shattering. Crowd-pleasing pulpy thrills are secondary, human drama comes foremost.
So when our team of drug-busting agents, lead by our three protagonists, storm a den in Mexico and transport the kingpin's brother back for questioning, it isn't just a by-the-numbers in-and-out sequence. It's a ritual is what it is. We bear witness to every move, every strategy, every furtive glance, every nervous gesture, even every speed bump on the road. Every step of the way to and from the den, the anticipation of a violent showdown builds and the tension mounts to such agonizingly painful levels that you're left with your hands clapped to your mouth, shaking in your seat with the ferocity to shake the person sitting next to you too.
This is what Villeneuve has always excelled at. Creating suspense and making audiences sweat out of nothing. Conjuring up tense situations out of thin air. Going deeper into seemingly ordinary situations and taking the audience along with him. He does it again during the film's nerve-wracking third act, which is gorgeously, oh-so-gorgeously shot and executed by veteran Roger Deakins (along with the rest of the film (man, those landscape shots)) and masterfully scored by composer Johann Johannsson. So, he succeeds at this twice in Sicario, which is two times more than most suspenseful thrillers out there. But where Sicario misses the train to greatness (and where Prisoners leaves it behind in the train equivalent of a rearview mirror) is in its script by Taylor Sheridan.
As the film moves from the opening kidnapping raid to the storming of the drug den to questioning of Mexican immigrants to the bank sequence to everything that follows, you can't help but get the feeling of a disjointed script, of moving from one incident to another without any smooth flow to the proceedings. Much like the thick paste I talked about, the film gets broken down into pieces as it stretches forward, to the point where there are too many gaps to reconcile despite a master like Villeneuve at its helm.
Another area with its own set of accomplishments and troubles is the character development of the three leads. Benicio Del Toro's mysterious character might be the most interesting of the lot for the longest period, with his fuzzy past and the reckless disregard for official rules of conduct, which is also the film's central theme. Del Toro's character embodies the film's ideologies of a system that's broken and corrupt and unchangeable, but it's been made this way due to precipitating circumstances and the only option left is to "do something bad to do something good". The final reveal of his flimsy motivations does bring the graph of his character Alejandro down, but he still remains far and away the most interesting person in the film.
Slightly more troublesome is the characterization of our only female lead Kate, played by Emily Blunt. Both the casting of Blunt and the healthy praise that Kate receives from her superiors before being brought onto the secret team would suggest a strong female character who shouldn't be messed with. Instead, Kate is either portrayed as the party-pooper/spoilt sport/stickler for rules, or left to be a submissive, silent bystander who gets manipulated by all the men surrounding her, a sad stereotype that is in complete contrast to the mold-breaking women in Villeneuve's own brilliant 2010 film Incendies, where the female protagonists took matter into their own hands rather than waiting to be saved and discarded by the men.
Perhaps most troublesome is Josh Brolin's character of a "DoD advisor" Matt Graver, the least fleshed-out person in the entire film. He has no other personality traits, no other motivations than "bringing order to the chaos".
Despite any character shortcomings, though, the performances remain top-notch from the whole cast. Blunt's character might be the complete opposite of the one she played so well in Edge of Tomorrow, but she does equally well here, getting under Kate's skin (and her frequent show of nerves). In fact, it's Blunt's performance in the absolute last scene that gives her character a lot of weight and gains her more sympathy than she probably deserves.
Benicio Del Toro is, to put it lightly, bad-ass in Sicario. He brings so much tension to every scene he's present in, and he shines so bright in the film's third act (while confronting his demons), it's impossible not to look at him and be mesmerized. Josh Brolin is more than able in his part, singlehandedly responsible for all of the film's humor (which isn't a lot) with his straight-faced one-liners when he's not grabbing your attention with his occasional speeches about how coloring inside the lines will get you nowhere in this terrible world.
Sicario presents one of the bigger dilemmas that I've across in recent times. On the one hand, I did leave the theater a tad disappointed. Is it because I built the film up too much in my head? Definitely. Does that excuse it from not matching up to my expectations? Definitely not. But on the other hand, Villeneuve does manage to spin his magic enough, and Sicario does manage keep you hooked enough for me to not recommend it. Just keep your expectations in check and you should be just fine.