We’ve talked a few times this year about a film being the best of its genre in decades, but in terms of general movies, Sicario trumps them all.
The film follows Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), an FBI special weapons and tactics agent who leads a team on a cartel-related raid in Arizona looking for hostages, but instead finds a mass grave. After the incident, she is recruited by Department of Defense adviser Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), who is organizing a cross-departmental task force to go after the men responsible. Macer is soon immersed in a world of deceit, off-book police work and indiscriminate violence as she attempts to unravel the truth behind Graver and his menacing partner, Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro).
In a sentence, this is the movie No Country for Old Men wishes it was.
Sicario is about Macer and her story, but there is so much more going on in this movie than its plot. This movie is about American self-importance, and U.S.’ ever expanding influence and seemingly random effect on the rest of the world. This movie is about gaslighting and sexual abuse, particularly of women but also in general. This movie is about wilderness encroaching on civilization — or maybe the other way around.
To call this movie’s morality complex would be an understatement to the point of negligence. Outside of Macer, the straight-laced protagonist, there is no one to root for here, but the film continually puts her in helpless positions and directs the audience toward the more ambiguous characters. She’s not even present in the climax, in which viewers are compelled to root for a Colombian drug dealing hitman/rapist/child murderer.
Sicario relies primarily on the basics to create its sinister feel. The principle actors are all superb, particularly Blunt in the lead role. First time screenwriter Taylor Sheridan’s story is a stronger backbone than anyone could hope for, and director Denis Villeneuve follows up 2013’s breakthrough Prisoners with an even more powerfully atmospheric movie.
This atmosphere is created mainly with music, which is put to minimal but expert use. The film also employs many long, slow shots when characters are advancing into danger, and the content of these shots is thematic and upsetting, meaning they build tension not only through feeling suspenseful but by actually being suspenseful as well. Of particular note, however, are the shots that aren’t upsetting on their own — the movie pays special attention to shooting the landscape around the U.S.-Mexico boarder, and particularly the harsh divides where the city and the desert meet. This theme becomes important beyond these shots at the tail end of the movie, but it creates a constant sense of menace toward the desert with these shots.
Among other things, Sicario’s narrative deserves attention for its strange, almost counterintuitive use of its protagonist. Macer is a tremendously strong character who is called upon by her superiors to be a weak one, and it creates several side conflicts as she gets run over. One of the most important roles of a protagonist is to guide the viewer through the story, and Macer does this, but she does it by not being told about the story. Graver and Alejandro deliberately keep her, and the audience by proxy, in the dark for the majority of the movie. It adds to the sense of menace, and also creates a positive feedback loop for Macer’s worries.
This movie is decidedly not for the faint of heart, and should carry some trigger warning for its several rape-ish scenes. The only literal rape happens off screen in a scene so short as to create confusion as to whether or not it really happened. Macer is twice beaten, both times by men who are bigger than her and who are restraining her and repeatedly telling her to stop struggling. It wasn’t like that, she was trying to kill both of them, but given the way these scenes are shot and some other choice lines — at one point, Alejandro threatens, “If you try anything, your daughter will be violated by 20 men” — point to rape being not a plot device, but a primary theme of the film. This is not necessarily a bad thing, no one ever implies that it’s OK, but it’s something that’s intended to make viewers uncomfortable and succeeds in a way that may go beyond what was intended.
Sicario is a movie that you’ll be hearing about for years as it is studied further and as producers put it on the poster of every movie that shares even a set designer with this film. See it, then see it again, if you can handle it.
Leopold Knopp is a formerly professional film critic, licensed massage therapist and journalism student at the University of North Texas. Take risks. I’ve had a change of heart about reader input. It is now welcomed and encouraged. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter @reelentropy, and shoot questions to reelentropy@.