Director Denis Villeneuve is skilled at crawling under our collective skin to make us unnerved, dangling us over a precarious edge. He’s done it before with an ethical mystery (PRISONERS) and a total mindf**k (ENEMY). Now he does it again with an action-crime-thriller in SICARIO. Essentially it’s TRAFFIC meets ZERO DARK THIRTY with a splash of NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, without being at all derivative of the aforementioned films. The lawlessness, hopelessness and vengeful sorrow that pervades the intense picture is painted on an otherwise stark canvas – a landscape that’s been splattered in blood.
Emily Blunt plays Kate, who, in any other genre, would be a plucky heroine with a heart of gold. Nope. In this journey, she’s a bad-ass FBI kidnap response field agent who’s just volunteered to go on the operation of a lifetime. She’s a government liaison, part of a covert team led by DOD advisor/ possible CIA spook Matt (Tommy Lee Jones in Josh Brolin’s body), himself a study in contrasts cloaked in casual attire and witty wise-cracks. Serving alongside laconic man of mystery Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), she will help take down a Mexican drug cartel based out of Juarez that’s bleeding across the Mexico/ Texas border. However, almost immediately upon accepting the gig, she’s met with a cloud of secrecy and confusion as to what’s really going on and why exactly she’s there.
This is the type of film that will inspire a multitude of essays (both visual and written) and think pieces about how Villeneuve and DP Roger Deakins (who also shot PRISONERS with the auteur) construct their bold visual narrative alongside screenwriter Taylor Sheridan’s written one. The pair have Kate begin in a place (a headspace, if you will) bathed in the sepia-toned warmth of the Arizona sunshine. Not only does it stand in complete juxtaposition to the horrors taking place and the crisp static camerawork, it’s a metaphor for her psychosis, subtly suggesting to us Kate’s gonna learn a thing or two about playing by the book. When we end, it’s a cool-blue-gray color palette, echoing the journey she’s just been on. Clouds hang in the sky thick with sadness and frustration. The dynamic duo also do a tremendous job utilizing every inch of the widescreen frame to tell the story, with sweeping vistas and establishing shots giving the actors room to play. Villeneuve also reunites with PRISONERS composer Jóhann Jóhannsson to take us on an audio sensory thrill ride. His score is used sparsely and when it is, it provides the grit – distortion and bass chugging, pounding like an engine in concert with the intensity of the visuals.
Sheridan’s script made a lot of headlines out of Cannes alerting us that he changed the lead from a man to a woman. Yay feminism, right? In a way, yes. But as the narrative unfolds and the metaphorical reels unfurl, that change from hero to heroine begins to feel ever-so-slightly like a gimmick and meets a rather predictable – and yet still very entertaining – end. Had this stayed as an exclusively male journey, it wouldn’t be nearly as interesting as a female entering a male-dominated field. It’s artifice, but it still works magnificently. Plus, in a certain Coen Brothers-esque fashion, the story muddily switches the protagonist it’s been following. Though it’s a bummer the story doesn’t fully comitt to sticking entirely with her, the tension and dynamic relationship the two protagonists create is a worthy enough payoff.
At some point in the first act, Alejandro tells Kate, “Nothing will make sense, you’ll doubt what you do and, in the end, it’ll all make sense.” During SICARIO’s two-hour run time, we experience just that, only flipped; Act One’s objective is clearly straight-forward. Act Two is when doubt enters. And Act Three, though revelatory, is deliberately filled with ambiguity – morally and psychologically.
SICARIO opens in limited release on September 18. Everywhere on October 2.