Sicario is the dark narc movie we’ve been waiting for

Quebec director Denis Villeneuve teases a fascinating film out of what could’ve been a generic crime thriller.

Sicario cast
Emily Blunt & co. in Sicario

Is it possible to be a bigger fan of a director than of his films? I’ve liked all the Denis Villeneuve films I’ve seen so far, but none of them have truly bowled me over. They’re all pretty good, but most of all I like Villeneuve’s style, his adherence to a murky, morally dubious darkness and stillness of emotion that seems to transcend the material he’s dealing with. It’s often said that a great director can elevate sub-standard material — Villeneuve practically sets himself apart from them entirely, weaving these technically proficient, stylistically perfect waves around what is sometimes perfunctory material. His latest film, Sicario, is beautifully, efficiently made and at times truly unnerving, but it lacks that certain kind of oomph.

Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is an FBI agent that makes up for relatively green status with chutzpah and idealism. When a raid on a drug den in Arizona goes south, leaving two agents dead, Macer is moved from the Kidnapping squad to a more mysterious function working under Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), a flip-flop-clad shitkicker who purposely keeps Kate in the dark about what exactly she’s doing. Alongside the even-more-mysterious Alejandro Gilick (Benicio del Toro), Macer is sent on various tracking missions in the depths of Ciudad Juarez, hunting deadbeats down the wrong alleyways in the hope that they will eventually lead them to the big fish.

Sicario Brolin etc
Josh Brolin & co.

Sicario’s major strength is in its utter hopelessness. Macer (and thus the viewer) spends a good 90 per cent of the movie completely disoriented and confused, thrust into the middle of the action with little to no concept of who she’s chasing or why. Each time she manages to shake a piece of info from the deceptively gregarious Graver, it only serves to cloud the waters further. There are bad guys in Sicario, but they’re not tremendously better than the good guys; those guys are only good because they offer marginally more protection than the others. It’s a surprisingly dark turn for a film that’s ostensibly a mainstream crime thriller. It asks us not only to identify with a lead character who never seems to know what’s going on and consistently removes any sign of hope from under our feet.

Or, at least that’s what Villeneuve does. The script (from character actor Taylor Sheridan — you may know him as Sons of Anarchy’s Chief Hale) has a lot of that hopeless darkness I mention above, but it also finds itself going down some more conventional paths. Del Toro’s character is saddled with a rather familiar backstory that finds him going through the motions of a much less interesting action movie (one, perhaps, that would’ve attracted the attention of Liam Neeson). As effective as Del Toro is at being the bubbling cauldron of violence and as tense as the resulting setpiece is, it feels inorganic against the disorienting and coldly brutal rest of the film. Same thing goes for a weirdly disposable subplot in which a minor character is fleshed out in a rather blatant attempt at not having 100 per cent faceless Mexican villains — it’s really the only subplot of its kind here, and its eventual integration into the fabric of the film only makes it seem more out of place and pointless.

Sicario Benicio
Benicio del Toro

As a director, Villeneuve has two major tricks up his sleeve: a tendency to go for the least obvious choice and a world-class cinematographer in the form of Roger Deakins on his side. Sicario is consistently elevated by Villeneuve’s unusual and sometimes brilliant mise-en-scène choices — it goes from fairly evident things like a breathless night-vision raid to more audacious and subtle things like omitting back-and-forth editing on dialogue scenes, letting them play out like found-footage or even theatre. The script has its limits, obviously; Villeneuve isn’t applying straight-up avant-garde technique to an otherwise straight-forward thriller, but his choices are consistently smart and surprising. Deakins, for his part, confirms his status as one of the great cinematographers working today, turning the drab and dusty setting into a vaguely alien wasteland.

Since Villeneuve started working in English with Enemy, his films have gotten progressively more complex from a purely logistical level. Sicario is Villeneuve’s biggest movie yet; like Prisoners, however, it suffers somewhat from a rather rigid script that’s at odds with the darkness of Villeneuve’s vision. Of all the Québécois directors making a ruckus in America at the moment, Villeneuve has definitely shown the most growth and potential. There’s a worse, more obvious movie hiding in Sicario, but, for all its flaws, I don’t think there’s a better one.
Come back to on Monday for our interview with Denis Villeneuve.
Sicario opens in theatres on Friday, Sept. 25. Watch the trailer here: