Just when I was ready to write off 2015 as being a relatively underwhelming year for Hollywood, a true masterwork rears its head and absolutely blows my expectations out of the proverbial water. Sicario is the latest from Canadian auteur Denis Villeneuve, known previously for 2013’s Prisoners and Enemy, and the Academy Award-nominated Incendies. Villeneuve’s Sicario reaches new heights for the established director, and it’s going to very interesting to see whether or not he’ll be able to top it in future outings. The film follows FBI agent Kate Macer (played by the excellent Emily Blunt) as she enlists in a shadowy task force whose sole purpose is to create chaos on the United States-Mexico border, and further the war against established drug cartels in the area. Tagging alongside agent Macer is her partner-in-crime Reggie Wayne (Daniel Kaluuya), and mysterious Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and his silent, but deadly partner Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro). At its heart, Sicario is about revenge, chaos, bureaucracy, corruption – and the occasional importance of corruption, and most importantly about necessary evils.
Sicario can be classified as being many different genres; crime, action, drama, but in my opinion this is the tightest, most thrilling film I’ve seen for a very long time. Villeneuve’s film is brooding, quiet, and relentlessly dark. There was not a single moment in its run-time where I didn’t feel absolutely captivated by the story being unravelled, the incredible performances from the entire leading cast, the terrific score by Johann Johannsson, and the tight and restrained direction from Denis Villeneuve (backed by some terrific cinematography by legend of the craft Roger Deakins). I hate to use this tired cliché, but I was very literally on the edge of my seat throughout the entirety of the film, and I would go as far as saying this was probably one of the best theatre experiences I’ve ever had (with the exception of the obnoxious pair sitting in front of me, but that’s for another time). In short, Sicario is a breath of fresh air in the current state of big budget films, and an absolute revelation in nearly every way. Filmmakers like Denis Villeneuve seem to be trying to usher in a new era in Hollywood filmmaking, akin to the New Hollywood movement of the 1970’s (which featured filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Altman, Hal Ashby, John Carpenter, Peter Bogdanovich, and a host of other highly influential names), taking material that could have been completely mediocre in the hands of a less talented filmmaker, and instead elevating it to be something truly special.
There are two absolute highlights in Sicario, and their names are Emily Blunt, and Academy Award winner Benicio Del Toro, both of whom put in two of the best performances I’ve seen all year-long. Blunt’s Kate Macer is such a conflicted, strong – and yet terrified and out-of-place, and independent character, and she absolutely nails it. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Emily Blunt as a front-runner for this year’s Best Actress at the Oscars, competing with heavyweights like Jennifer Lawrence (Joy), Brie Larson (Room), and Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara (Carol) among others. On the other side of the fence, Benicio Del Toro’s Alejandro is quiet, cold, and calculated, making this his best performance since Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic, which netted him the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Del Toro is terrifying at times, while always remaining mysterious and sympathetic, making his performance and Alejandro’s character arc a constant joy to watch unfold.
Sicario has more in the common with Kathryn Bigelow’s incredible Zero Dark Thirty than it does with most of Villeneuve’s previous films, which is a major compliment in my books. Both films are morally ambiguous, ridiculously intense and thrilling, and procedural in every sense, showing both sides (bureaucracy and the actual implementation) of such a high risk government operation. Villeneuve’s direction is subtle and never too flashy, perfectly paired with Roger Deakins’ fairly restrained photography, and the constantly pulsing and pounding score by up-and-coming composer Johann Johannsson. These elements make the procedural elements of the film absolutely riveting, never losing the attention of its audience. I have very high hopes for Sicario and its performance at the Academy Awards, and will be crossing my fingers as Oscar season approaches.
Sicario is easily my favorite film of 2015 to date, featuring incredible performances by Emily Blunt and Benicio Del Toro, backed by an incredible supporting cast, tight direction by Denis Villeneuve, and terrific photography by the much revered Roger Deakins. If you are the least bit interested in crime thrillers with constant twists and turns, and are okay with moral ambiguity in film, then do yourself a favor and see Sicario. Don’t even finish reading this review, just go now. This film is nearly perfect in every way, and already has me excited for a re-watch. Sicario gets my highest recommendation.