THE drug wars of Mexico become the centre for Denis Villeneuve’s latest thriller, the Palme d’Or nominee Sicario, an imperfect but nonetheless chillingly intense work building from the work of its talented cast of Emily Blunt and Benicio del Toro.
A routine mission to secure hostages from a house in Arizona leads FBI agent Kate Mercer and her colleagues (Blunt) to the unexpected discovery of many bodies hidden behind the walls, apparent victims of wars between rival cartels.
Following that, Mercer is assigned by her boss to work for sandal-wearing officer Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) in an attempt to find the people responsible and make a name for herself. Included in the team is Matt’s partner Alejandro Gillick (del Toro), a former prosecutor whose mysteriousness and unorthodox tactics lead Kate to assume that the mission is not going to be as basic as it should be.
As the case progresses and with tensions boiling between her and her superiors, Kate’s morality leads her to question what exactly the aim for the mission is. With the source of the mission revealed, the scenario leads Kate into territory that even someone as strong-willed as her may not be prepared for.
Villeneuve has achieved mixed results with bringing memorability to the screen this decade. His Oscar-nominated Canadian-Lebanese drama Incendies failed to justify its nomination in the Foreign Language Film category but he compensated with the child abduction thriller Prisoners. He came crashing back down though with his previous film Enemy so one would have gone in with reservation about this film. Thankfully, it works, not perfectly, but enough to enjoy the experience.
Scenes such as a standoff in a traffic jam are intense and the atmosphere is so taut at times that one sits with genuine fright that a form of brutality could occur at any given time, with the opening sequences testifying to that. Its prevention from becoming any better than good though lies with its approach in that the film carries a more basic structure of agents going after villains. It’s also only in the last half hour of the film when the twists are revealed that the film succeeds at elevating what has been done beforehand. In fact, one can say that the film would have easily got a higher rating if the intensity of the climactic conclusion had matched that throughout.
It is through this though that the film does allow its characters to be given a sensible use of development that at times ranks up the interest for various sequences that take place later.
This sits well with its two best performers, Blunt and del Toro, their second pairing following 2010’s horror flop The Wolf Man.
Blunt, who is developing a reputation for being an action heroine having appeared in Looper and Edge of Tomorrow, brings genuine fear and humanity to a part which requires a toughness but has to respect she is a human. Rather than portraying the character as a one-dimensional female agent, the part allows Blunt to display convincing emotional charge that falls in line with successful recent female characters in like Jessica Chastain’s Maya in Zero Dark Thirty and Clare Danes’ Carrie Bradshaw in Homeland.
The real star of the show comes from del Toro whose character of Alejandro makes for one of the more superior characters from a film this year. Screaming out for a deserved supporting Oscar nomination, del Toro makes one wonder what the character’s motives for acting so mysteriously are and the success lies with the constant restraint that strays with the character. It is a good performance throughout but it becomes an even better and unpredictable performance in the final act when the true motives for the character are revealed. In fact, it is a performance that is good as it is that even Brolin, who does no wrong here, is effectively blown out of screen whenever del Toro appears.
Sicario is not for the faint of heart but with its realism adding to its fear and benefitting from some impressive work from its performers, this is another work that compensates for previous underwhelming work from its director.