It’s almost hard to believe, but as recently as 2015 Denis Villeneuve wasn’t a name which struck awe into cinema-goers. The French Canadian director had cut his teeth on a series of shorts and niche features, and 2013 had seen him step tentatively into the multiplexes with the Hugh Jackman-led thriller Prisoners, and Enemy, a similarly tense outing with Jake Gyllenhaal and Mélanie Laurent.
It wasn’t until two years later than his next project, Sicario, landed in front of astonished audiences. If they hadn’t learned Villeneuve’s name before, they would now.
Penned by Taylor Sheridan, this is the story of FBI agent Kate Mercer (Emily Blunt), struggling to come to terms with the work of the secretive government task force she’s cautiously agreed to join. Headed by the unkempt and unorthodox Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), the team are given what appears to be carta blanca to combat the Mexican drug cartels foolish enough to come to their attention. And while rule-bending from the ground troops is something that Kate at least has experience of, it’s the behaviour of Graver’s unofficial partner, Alejandro Gillick (Benicio Del Toro) that begins to make her question not only the ethics, but the legality of their operations.
So far, so procedural; Sicario‘s setup isn’t trying to reinvent the narrative wheel. The film really comes into its own with a visceral screen presence. Villeneuve takes Sheridan’s story and visually translates its pitch-black heart, aided in no small part by the award-winning veteran cinematographer Roger Deakins. From the Instagram-baiting sunsets and languorous aerial photography of what looks like an alien landscape, to the uneasy silences between characters trying to process their situation in time to save their lives, this looks and feels absolutely stunning.
And those silences aren’t just for the audience to grab a breather. Sheridan’s screenplay is often sparse on dialogue but heavy on subtext. The pauses between the lines have rarely been more important than they are here. The late Jóhann Jóhannsson’s brooding score follows our players from scene to scene, the musical equivalent of a Greek chorus ready to forebode and lament every unwise decision we see.
But all of this would suggest a ponderous piece, perhaps with more chin-stroking than trigger-squeezing. This is not the case, by any means. Sicario is every bit as violently uncompromising as its subject matter, choreographed and filmed with a surgical precision that ensures anything which isn’t (or can’t) be shown is readily imagined by the audience. Bloodshed isn’t glamourised here, but the producers haven’t ‘nerfed’ it down either. In fact, it’s probably fair to say that the most unsettling scenes are those which carry the threat of violence, rather than its execution.
Early in the proceedings, overhead tracking-shots of military and police vehicles moving into formation with ballet-like grace and coordination give the impression of children’s toys being moved around on a playmat. Later, the third act set-piece begins with the camera switching between airborne drone-photography, ground level night vision and thermal imaging, as if the audience are playing a squad based shoot-em-up, cycling through different views to find the most suitable one for beating their opponent. But as games go, this is one where the audience are happy to be spectators.
The story’s coda which takes place in Kate Mercer’s flat is a masterclass in dramatic tension, and while it would be easy to put this down to the figure waving the weapon, an actor is nothing without their counterparts to really sell the mood in the room.
Emily Blunt gives one of the best performances of her career, grimly determined yet increasingly unsure at every turn. At the other end of this rope is Benicio Del Toro, whose hitman persona is simultaneously intriguing and terrifying. And in the middle, refereeing the tug-of-war between their two approaches to ‘pest control’ is a deceptively easygoing Josh Brolin. The supporting cast (including that evergreen of menacing behaviour, Jon Bernthal) round out the proceedings perfectly under Villeneuve’s direction, but make no mistake – this is a cinematic trident of justifiable rage.
Brutal without being exploitative, thoughtful without snobbishness. Sicario is a work of savage beauty clocking in at an accessible two hours. The best part is that Denis made this look easy before going on to bring us the outstanding Arrival and Blade Runner 2049. If you haven’t learned Villeneuve’s name before, you should now…