(2015) Drama (Lionsgate) Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, Benicio del Toro, Victor Garber, Jon Bernthal, Daniel Kaluuya, Jeffrey Donovan, Raoul Trujillo, Julio Cedillo, Hank Rogerson, Bernardo P. Saracino, Maximilliano Hernandez, Kevin Wiggins, Edgar Arreola, Kim Larrichio, Jesus Nevarez-Castillo, Dylan Kenin, John Trejo, Marty Lindsey, Alex Knight, Sarah Minnich. Directed by Denis Villeneuve
One of the casualties of any war is human decency and nowhere is that more apparent than in America’s war on drugs. Of course, the enemy that’s being battled – the Latin American drug cartels – are particularly vicious. How do you fight an enemy who will go to any lengths to win – beyond the pale of anything that could even be called human?
FBI agent Kate Macer (Blunt) leads a raid on a home that may be owned by a high ranking member of a Mexican cartel in Arizona. There she, her partner Reggie (Kaluuya) and her boss Dave Jennings (Garber) discover horrors that boggle the imagination, as well as a nasty surprise. Her work on this raid gets the attention of Matt Graver (Brolin), a breezy government agent theoretically with the Department of Justice but that part is pretty murky. He’s putting together a cross-organizational team to take down one of the cartels that’s been making lethal inroads to American cities and he wants Kate on it.
Also on the team is Alejandro (del Toro), a mysterious figure whose allegiance could be to anybody on either side of the conflict. In going after Manuel Diaz (Saracino) whose brother Silvio (Hernandez) runs the cartel, they’ll have to make a dangerous prisoner transfer from Mexico to the U.S. that will lead to a deadly shootout, traverse a drug runner tunnel with numerous gunmen guarding its secrets, and eventually lead to the discovery that neither side in this war has clean hands – and maybe that’s the only way to fight it.
Villeneuve, who is probably best known in this country for Prisoners (although Incendies is in my opinion a much better film) is enormously talented and has nearly unlimited potential. Every film he makes is at least interesting, and a few are stellar. This is one of the latter; he has an economy of camera movement as well as of image; everything is important and nothing goes to waste. He knows also how to use silence; some of the best moments in the film have little or no dialogue.
Blunt who has been on the radar since Edge of Tomorrow further cements her standing as the thinking person’s action star. She isn’t the invincible killing machine that is a Schwarzenegger or a side-of-the-mouth quipster that is a Willis; instead, she’s a little vulnerable (being nearly strangled by Jon Bernthal as a corrupt cop midway through the film) and a little fragile (there are times that she literally is shaking after things go south), yet she’s as tough as nails and at the end of the film has a moment in which she asserts that she does have control – and chooses to go her own way. It is one of those silent moments I spoke of earlier that is used to great effect.
Del Toro, who often gets slotted behind Javier Bardem when it comes to Latin actors, is magnificent here, a brooding presence whose gentle voice belies an inner rage which is kept under wraps until the very end. His motivations also remain murky until we discover what is driving him late in the film. Brolin, who has been appearing in supporting roles in some very good films lately, adds another solid performance to his resume.
This is one of the better-written films of the year, one in which Villeneuve is able to thrive with. He creates a tension that begins from the amazing and shocking opening sequence and never lets up until the final frames. Sicario defines intensity pretty much, from the actions of the onscreen characters to the offscreen political aspect.
The war on drugs continues apace in a non-fiction world where bad things happen to good people and those who dare to stand up to the cartels are made gruesome examples of – wee see some of that here. It is a world that those in the Southwest are terrified might make its way up into the Estados Unidos and with good reason. Walls may make it difficult for illegals to emigrate here but it won’t keep the cartels out.
This is part political thriller, part police procedural and part action movie. There is likely to be some Oscar consideration for it down the line but to what degree remains to be seen. It wouldn’t surprise me if it gets some Best Picture consideration come February. There are a lot of movies to come out before anyone hands out statuettes but one thing is for certain; this is a feature worthy of any serious filmgoers attention.
REASONS TO GO: Intense and riveting. Extremely well-written. Strong performances from Blunt, Brolin and del Toro.
REASONS TO STAY: The pacing feels a bit jumpy.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence, some fairly gruesome images and a whole lot of expletives.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The thermal vision scenes were actually shot with a thermal vision camera and the optics were not added in post-production.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/12/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Traffic
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: He Named Me Malala