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Sicario movie review: A simmering tale of violence and drugs, Sicario is this year's stand-out crime thriller

Rahul Desai | Updated on: 13 February 2017, 5:38 IST
  • Sicario chronicles an FBI agent\'s involvement in a drug-cartel-busting Special Op mission along the Mexican border
  • Emily Blunt sheds the glamour to prove her versatility again
  • Sicario is a slow burner; shot beautifully, well-acted and atmospheric

For the most part, Sicario - directed by Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve (Incendies, Prisoners, Enemy) - is a film about moments that bridge important moments. For considerable passages of time, we're given meditative aerial glimpses of menacing environments, of the towns to be entered and invaded, of changing horizons. These shots, with its accompanying drumbeats and music of dread, are suggestive in their totality. It's as if the score plays a game of hot-and-cold with the viewer; volumes rise when danger is imminent below. But we can't see it, and are only made to sense it. There's a violence simmering within. Fires, murders, rapes, and destruction take place off-screen, as cop cars and squads traverse national highways in synchronization and order.

We routinely read about illegal border activity and drug cartel wars, deaths and obscure shootouts, about Mexico and America. Villeneuve paints a gloomy picture of the action - and the preparation, and anticipation - behind these headlines. He intends for us to feel like FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt; channeling her inner washed-up-Al-Pacino-cop act), who is thrust into a government-approved special-op that's shadowy, and on the fringes of legality and civilisation. For long frustrating beats, can't fathom the scale and intention of the activity around her. Smoke the cartel bigwigs out of their holes, but why - she wonders - when they can be trialed and jailed.

A still from Sicario

A Still from Sicario

Obviously, her naivety serves as eyes and ears for us to comprehend sequences - which curiously don't thrive on set pieces, but its lack of importance in this stifling territory. Villeneuve doesn't let her smile, and look increasingly worried and out of depth. In turn, she passes on her anxiety to us.

Like a child forced to sit in on a college class, she reluctantly follows Department of Defense advisor Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) around, incensed that they're treating her as baggage, or perhaps as a necessary technicality. She suspects that his silent, lurking partner Alejandro (Benicio del Toro) knows far more than anyone is supposed to. Del Toro has this presence about him; you know he's part of the action, but his monosyllabic replies make you hope he isn't the crux of it.

Brolin's condescending smirks are put to good use again, and together, they prod and push Macer into a zone far beyond her idealistic realms. "The boundaries have expanded," she is told, in lieu of the engineered chaos she witnesses. She wants to make a difference and 'more than scratch the surface,' as she is led to believe before joining the op, but the fire-meets-fire universe isn't quite her cup of drugs.

Just like her, we're led to believe that this film (and op) is about her, and that she's integral to its result. Blunt does a fantastic job of looking unsure and scared. This isn't easy, especially when she has to focus all her energies on staying useful - and alive. The filmmaker drowns out the outside world of high command, media, reverberations and murmurs of discontent, while still suggesting that they can mold motivations. Just like death, you know they're around, but choose to concentrate on the faces around you.

Stunning photography tells a story; sets the mood and tone

A still from Sicario

A still from Sicario

The fusion of sound and imagery paints an atmosphere, vivid and stark - in complete contrast to Roger Deakins' blocking and cinematography. The master of photography makes the inherently warm, dusty, smoky confines of the Mexican border areas look alluring, attractive even. It's as if humans are let loose to trample upon a once-spectacular portrait. This is, frighteningly, not entirely a far-fetched metaphor. Characters and crucial moments are juxtaposed against picturesque magic hours - to make it look like an accident, an afterthought, and to remind us that blood can splatter across lands but not its clear skies.

Far from the gritty hand-held treatment most cartel-themed sagas employ, Deakins' style means that Villeneuve can concentrate on his distinct grammar of storytelling. He lets you grasp and feel for its embattled spirit, rather than letting the story come to you. He has mastered the art of 'staying' - letting static shots play out, forcing us to mentally conjure up various offshoots and reasons for this shot, before smacking us with no immediate answers. That he can converse with us through his craft is remarkable, and is a sign that truly good filmmakers can redefine a genre without reinventing it.

Most notably, it's impossible not to revisit the importance of his double-entendre titles. 'Sicario' is a hypnotic anti-procedural cop drama; it is also Spanish for 'hitman.'

(The film is rated 'A': only for Adults. And even amongst adults, it's only for those with a tolerance for simmering silences, questionable politics and human brutality)

First published: 9 October 2015, 5:54 IST
Rahul Desai @ReelReptile

Rahul Desai is a full-time Federer enthusiast and avid traveller who absolutely must find a way to reach Europe once a year. In his spare time, he reviews films, aspires to own a swimming pool and whines about the lack of palatable food in Mumbai.