Canadian director Denis Villenueve follows up his 2013/14, critically acclaimed dark duo: Prisoners and Enemy with a film that delves into the growing schism between drug law enforcement in the USA and the political wants and needs at national government level.
Emily Blunt plays Kate Mercer – an idealistic, fast rising star in the FBI’s battle state side. After her most recent raid goes horribly and tragically wrong she’s called up to volunteer for a covert mission to apprehend the people directly responsible for the colleagues she’s lost. During her interview for this new role the questions – led by Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) a sandal wearing hippy spook with a glock – are oblique and the details of the task at the Mexican border area are vague and closely guarded. Uncertain of what she’s involved herself in, Mercer is motivated by a base need to see justice prevail – a notion that will be rubbed from her thoughts over the duration of the movie.
The excellent screenplay is by Sons Of Anarchy star Taylor Sheridan and unlike much out of Hollywood isn’t linked to an existing intellectual property or ongoing franchise. This is an original screenplay written for the sole purpose of making a new movie – who knew that would be a USP come 2016. For that alone Sicario should be trumpeted as a success.
The stunning cinematography is by veteran Brit Roger Deakins (The Shawshank Redemption, No Country For Old Men and Skyfall. There’s a sweeping shot flying over the fence between America and Mexico that lasts just that bit too long – not least because the fence itself stretches for miles and miles – and in those few uncomfortable moments looking at acres of desert the futility of what’s going on is illustrated perfectly.
Mercer isn’t your traditional hero and Blunt’s performance is a fascinatingly powerful one. She’s not got a clear purpose in Graver’s mission and as a result she’s very passive, but this creates a very different type of drama. Her confusion and lack of comprehension of what is occurring is compounded by the presence of Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) as part of the team she joins. As the audience your jaw will drop at the audacity and blurring of the legal lines that their actions display. Consequently, you’ll be rooting for her to rise above the whispering and political chicanery to kick some drug-dealing ass, but instead you’re forced to learn, as she does, that the war on drugs isn’t about good versus evil. It’s about order and control; and the American government is spending money like there’s no tomorrow trying to create the best set of circumstances for the type of order they can control. It’s the inverse of a hero’s journey, in so much that Sicario is the destruction of one person’s raison d’etre. Rather than the atypical tale of a no nonsense cop who shows the beurocrats how the job is really done.
The twists and turns are both nail biting and a stark reminder that in the shadows those with the biggest guns – in a macro sense – get to call the shots and the innocent people on the ground just trying to live their lives in Mexico are of no interest to the US government nor the cartels. If you’re as idealistic as Mercer is at start of the film then, like the ending of Prisoners, you’ll be frustrated by Sicario’s lack of closure. Regardless most will be amazed and annoyed at the tax dollars and resources that are seemingly dedicated to effectively chasing your tail.
Fifteen years after Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic, Sicario is a terrifying and dramatic update on the state of the fruitless war on drugs taking place between the USA government and the Mexican cartels.
Sicario is released on Blu-ray, DVD and digital platforms on February 1st.