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Sicario: a gritty, intelligent drug cartel thriller

Aleesha Matharu | Updated on: 13 February 2017, 5:38 IST

Nothing is as it seems in Sicario, the latest English language offering from director Denis Villeneuve.

The film sells itself deceptively - an action thriller centred around an FBI task force enlisted to take down one of Mexico's most bloodthirsty drug cartels. Which is exactly why you walk in expecting big explosions and lots of gunfire.

And sure, there are a few such brutal moments where you're gripping the arms of your seat. But the film actually operates on a far more mature level than the other movies in its genre.

The title, which means 'hitman' in Spanish, appropriately captures the intense uneasiness and brutal nature of the US-Mexico border.

It begins with Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), an FBI agent, leading a raid on a house in Chandler, Arizona. Flanked by her partner Reggie Wayne (Daniel Kaluuya), Kate storms the house looking for hostages and uncovers dozens of rotting corpses entombed behind the drywall. They're victims of a drug cartel, and things then get even worse when an explosion kills two officers.

Soon after, Kate is recruited to aid an inter-agency task force led by Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) whose simple goals of tackling the cartel's higher-ups, it turns out, are anything but.

Everything in the film strives to further the sense of unease that the first scene lays out. Kate always enters scenes in the middle of proceedings, constantly on the back foot and not aware of the full picture.


Emily Blunt delivers a stellar performance - mixing confidence, bewilderment and vulnerability.

Nowhere is this more true than with Alejandro, Benicio Del Toro's mysterious Columbian who takes a leading role in the mission. His real goal is repeatedly and purposefully kept ambiguous, for both Kate and the audience.

But best of all are the scenes between Alejandro and Kate, many of them silent, but filled with resonances from the past - regrets, sorrows, desires - and strange omens for the future. They display a depth of talent and emotional intelligence that is truly astonishing.

The cohesive storyline and brilliant cinematography make Sicario a definite Oscar favourite

Throughout the film, the camera is fluid, meandering until the action is caught in the centre of the frame. Moreover, Roger Deakins' cinematography perfectly captures the urban sprawl of Juarez, showing the chaos of the city.

In fact, because the film depicts such extreme violence in the Mexican city of Juarez - the city's mayor has vowed to sue filmmakers. But the filmmakers presented the truth - while gunfire and decapitated bodies hanging from bridges may not currently be occurring with regularity in Juarez in the present day, these events were frequent only five years ago.

In fact, an agent in the film explains that it's a tactic used by the cartels - hanging up mutilated bodies is a way make people believe the corpses are individuals who really did something to offend the cartels. But in reality, most of them are innocent victims who are used as props - along with handmade signs or banners - in psychological warfare against the community and police.

It's a scene that makes the audience incredibly aware of the cruelty cartels dish out - destroying families left, right and centre to serve their own purposes.

Make no mistake though - this isn't a documentary-style film. Even so, there's enough accuracy (especially one very tense scene involving a cross-border drug tunnel) to suspend any disbelief by those more knowledgeable about the drug war.

At the end of the day, it's the fascinating and cohesive storyline packaged with brilliant cinematography that make Sicario an appropriate film to reign in the upcoming Oscar season.

First published: 9 October 2015, 7:55 IST
Aleesha Matharu @almatharu

Born in Bihar, raised in Delhi and schooled in Dehradun, Aleesha writes on a range of subjects and worked at The Indian Express before joining Catch as a sub-editor. When not at work you can find her glued to the TV, trying to clear a backlog of shows, or reading her Kindle. Raised on a diet of rock 'n' roll, she's hit occasionally by wanderlust. After an eight-year stint at Welham Girls' School, Delhi University turned out to be an exercise in youthful rebellion before she finally trudged her way to J-school and got the best all-round student award. Now she takes each day as it comes, but isn't an eternal optimist.