Sicario may well fall under the radar this year, through no fault of its own.
It has the biggest of names to compete with, most notably the new Star Wars instalment coming in December, and of course the big-hitter SPECTRE, with Sicario being released barely a week prior to the latest Bond blockbuster. In this way it is easy to understand why director Denis Villeneuve’s film has not received widespread public attention, and most likely will continue to evade the attention it deserves until the year is out — after all, how can anyone hope to compete for the public eye with two of the biggest franchises to grace the screen? The reality is that Sicario will not outsell SPECTRE or Star Wars, and by the close of 2015 it will be the established money-makers dominating the majority of discussion. But you need only glance at Sicario’s critical reception to see that this film merits more of a spotlight than it will unfortunately get. To compare, SPECTRE has cost Eon $300 million to produce and Star Wars will reportedly cost Disney $200 million, while Sicario’s budget is a (relatively) paltry $30 million. And yet, in Sicario, Villeneuve has made a film which confidently rivals its contemporaries, no matter their studio or financial backing.
Sicario is, to summarise, a crime thriller. Emily Blunt is Kate Macer, an FBI agent brought into an operation to take down Manuel Díaz, the leader of a Mexican cartel. With her is Matt Graver (played by Josh Brolan) and the enigmatic Alejandro Gillik, a role with which Benicio del Toro steals the show. That is, at least as far as on-screen characters go. Alejandro quickly becomes the undoubted focus of our attention, despite Kate being protagonist. Del Toro portrays a dark, brooding man; he is economical with his words yet his silence can command a scene. However despite his cool, aloof veneer, from the very moment Alejandro enters his first shot, there is a sense of violence within, bubbling just under the surface. Indeed, this is indicative of how Villeneuve directs the entire film. From wonderful long shots of the vast arid deserts of Juárez and Arizona, Villeneuve will then take us to moments of thrilling action and suspense, and then to grotesque moments of gore, horror, and unhuman cruelty.
This is very well encapsulated in the film’s opening scene: a SWAT raid on a house suspected of holding hostages. We see the tense concentration from Blunt and her team members in their ATV, before the hectic action begins, and subsequently, a grisly discovery occurs. Villeneuve uses this thematic trio of silence, violence, and horror as a mantra throughout, and by the virtue of the director’s masterful pacing in-between, the film flourishes. We regularly marvel at some truly beautiful landscape shots, which Villeneuve instils with a threatening atmosphere that is greatly aided by the film’s perfectly menacing soundtrack. In the next moment, we are plunged into the horrifying details of cartel activity. Sicario also excels in the precise way it examines Mexican drug cartels — or rather, those tasked with taking them down. Sightings of the actual criminals whom Kate, Matt, and Alejandro are after are few and far between, which is entirely intentional by Villeneuve. He has his main characters, and he deploys them in such a way as to pose pressing questions of how we perceive their moral and psychological conditions, as well as, by extension, our own. As the plot reaches its denouement, Villeneuve’s vision presents itself as one of a harsh, cold state of affairs — but nevertheless, despite Sicario’s distressing subject matter and unforgiving outlook, cinematically it is a thing of beauty. There are numerous instances where the cinematography takes centre stage with striking immediacy, and Villeneuve’s pointed use of silence in his movies intelligently allows the images to breathe.
The result is arguably one of the best films of this year, albeit it may not be recognised as such by the majority — Sicario will struggle to receive as much exposure as the top names (its run in York has been criminally short). Nevertheless, Sicario highly merits a viewing if you are able to go and see it. It is without question violent and not for the faint-of-heart, but Villeneuve does not overload us with gratuitous violence, and neither is the violence thrown in simply for its own sake. Despite its genre of crime thriller, Sicario showcases violence only when it needs to, when it will purposefully advance story and theme and make us think. It is the moments of quiet — the moments where Villeneuve brilliantly paces and develops the film in-between the gore, gunfire, and action — which are the movie’s real foundation for success, and where it undoubtedly shines. With such a well-constructed foundation, each dramatic turn, bloody climax, and bullet shot seem to hit that much harder.