Denis Villeneuve has steadily built an enviable body of work since his Oscar-nominated war drama Incendies (2010). With a penchant for restrained and confident storytelling, the tense and intelligent Prisoners and Enemy – made back-to-back and both released in 2013 – cemented his status as a bold, stylistic auteur to be revered.
His latest offering tackles the much-dramatised subject of the US’ covert war on drugs. While current Netflix series Narcos tracks the birth of a global industry and a superpowers’ struggle to control and eliminate it, Sicario (which means hitman in Mexico) considers their current plight in a far more complex, sophisticated world. We follow Emily Blunt‘s Kate Mercer, a hard-boiled and idealistic FBI agent tasked with eliminating South American drug cartels’ activity in the States. After an operation goes bad, she’s offered the chance to join a covert task force – led by Josh Brolin‘s Matt and Benicio del Toro‘s Alejandro – intent on striking at the heart of the cartels’ operations south of the border. However, all is not what it seems. Methods and motives, then loyalties, within the faction are questioned in escalation, with only Mercer’s unwavering hunger for clarity and justice left to navigate our way out of the dark.
Technically speaking, Sicario glides above its peers. Villeneuve and 12-time Oscar-nominated cinematographer Roger Deakins are a cinematic force to behold. They construct a visually arresting, labrynthine underworld that is perfectly complimented by Jóhann Jóhannsson‘s haunting and unnerving score. Furthermore, Emily Blunt will undoubtedly cement her status as one of the most impressive and intriguing British actor’s of recent years. Her entrancing performance as the staunch, intrepid Kate Mercer runs a close race with Rachel McAdams‘ Ani Bezzerides (True Detective) for 2015’s best badass investigator. Co-stars Del Toro and Brolin effortlessly ooze authenticity and impart ruthless venom on Villeneuve’s expertly-crafted world. Notable mentions should also go to Jon Bernthal and Victor Garber, who round out a stellar ensemble cast.
It should be made clear that despite the subject-matter, Sicario is an unapologetic, no-holds-barred thriller. While the various themes at play touch upon policy and address counter-activity adequately, it’s primary intent is to drag the audience through a maze of confusion, hostility and dread. Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan aims to inform the audience that this is a world you do not understand. You should not be here. You should be afraid. And while this potency works, you do leave the theatre believing a slightly debatable message could have been relayed, in order to provide a more complex, contemporary conclusion.
Regardless of this niggle – and it is, for want of a better word, a niggle – Sicario is confident, precise filmmaking and we should welcome a technical masterclass in suspense and horror realism such as this. Villeneuve has teased us with the potential for such prowess in his past outings, and it’s great to see him hit his stride now. The razor-sharp tension and impressive performances overshadow Sicario’s struggle to overcome the formulaic tropes of the genre. While it doesn’t add too much to the canon – where Traffic (2000), among others, did – it’s a decidedly strong narcotics thriller that has arguably enough to say to justify its slick, abrasive delivery.