Denis Villeneuve crafts an intense Mexican border thriller that throws fish-out-of-water FBI agent Emily Blunt into a DEA/CIA task force run by two agents (Josh Brolin and Benicio del Toro, who has trod this ground before) who are tired of playing by the rules. It would have been compelling to watch this story unfold from the woman’s point-of-view — there was some talk of rewriting her as a man — but inevitably the movie defers to the male-driven action, which is non-stop. At the Cannes press conference, Villeneuve denied that he is selling an “end justifies the means” solution to the out-of-control Mexican cartels. He’s just asking questions. While tight and well-made, the movie doesn’t offer a fresh perspective on this familiar scenario.
Reviews have been up and down. Lionsgate has set a September 18 release for this film directed by Villeneuve, written by Taylor Sheridan and shot by the great Roger Deakins.
With a menacing tone that holds tight from start to finish, the movie finds Villeneuve entering Michael Mann territory, building a grim story of cartel warriors on both sides of the Mexican border and the baffled innocent officer caught in the crossfire. Aided by icy turns from Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro and Josh Brolin, the taut narrative marks another fine example of Villeneuve’s expert craftsmanship. At the same time, the sheer density of filmmaking talent makes its facile story stand out.
There’s not much fault to find with Sicario on the level of craft or performances, just its rather sputtering momentum, and the lack of a higher purpose. It’s admirable that the film’s taking its subject seriously; it’s just not enough. Actor-turned-scribe Taylor Sheridan spells his points out too rhetorically about the desperate measures being demanded by the Mexico problem, and does something dismaying every 10 minutes or so, like having Del Toro explain that Mexican cops “aren’t always the good guys,” or giving a cartel lieutenant a cute kid so we get that he’s a human being.
A densely woven web of compelling character studies and larger systemic concerns, Villeneuve and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan’s bleaker, more jaundiced riposte to Steven Soderbergh’s 2000 “Traffic” may prove too grim and grisly for some audiences and too morally ambiguous for others. But with its muscular style and top-flight cast, this fall Lionsgate release should score solid (if less than “Prisoners”-sized) business from discerning adult moviegoers, along with dark-horse awards-season buzz.
“Sicario” offers Blunt’s character nothing in the way of military challenges that can quite rival what the actress took on last year in “Edge of Tomorrow.” Instead, she provides a sharply penetrating reading of a smart, resilient young woman whose desire to help out is no match for the deceptions and frustrating barriers placed in her way. Seeing how much she has to contribute — to the missions at hand, to the country, to a personal relationship — it’s sad bordering on tragic to think that she could just end up as yet another potential victim of an unending war that, in one way or another, poisons everyone it touches. Blunt’s performance is first-rate.
Villeneuve doesn’t seem all that interested in actually investigating the situation—a side plot about a Mexican family swept up in the conflict feels tacked-on, a hasty, “Oh, right, there are innocent people involved in all this; humanity, blah blah,” before the film returns to its stylish appreciation of violence-adept men who live in the moral shadows—while a naïve woman scolds them for it… “Sicario” is a wonder to look at and listen to, full of ominous beauty. But, alas, it’s not the high I was hoping for.
Here, [Villeneuve] has just taken control of a straight-ahead Hollywood genre movie, and managed it with great flair without any supercilious over-thinking – which is not to say that it isn’t smart. As an action thriller, it delivers.
Villeneuve is truly a master director… and there are curious flourishes in “Sicario” that remind us there’s a singular sensibility behind the camera. But the clean lines of his style, the kind of short-declarative-sentences in which he tells his stories suits some narratives more than others. Here, the bare bones feel familiar, and despite psychologically rich performances, and some cleverly staged action scenes there’s just not a great deal we can get purchase on, and very little to surprise.