As the story of director Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario unfolds, we watch the drama through the eyes of Emily Blunt’s Kate Macer – and it’s worth mentioning right at the top that Blunt is brilliant in the role. Macer is a smart, competent FBI agent who happens to find herself in way over her head battling the drug war on the United States/Mexico border, and the actress does a fantastic job crafting a protagonist whom the audience can both use as a cypher to the plot and cheer for. She’s the kind of hero you want to stick with right until the end – but this actually becomes a major problem for Sicario, as late narrative turns eventually leave the character in the dust while simultaneously leaving movie-goers questioning who and what the film is actually about.
Based on an original screenplay by actor-turned-writer Taylor Sheridan, Sicario takes audiences deep into the on-going battle between law enforcement and border-crossing drug smugglers. Following a bust that goes horribly, horribly wrong, Kate Mercer finds herself both filled with rage and enlisted to be a part of government task force going after some big game: a kingpin named Manuel Diaz (Bernardo P. Saracino). Keeping her partner Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya) by her side, and teaming with a smiling, sandal-wearing Department of Justice operative named Matt (Josh Brolin), and a mysterious outsider named Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), Kate finds herself facing greater danger than anything before in her life.
Sicario’s protagonist problems wind up being significant, retroactively casting a negative shade on the movie -- which is a shame, because it takes what could be great and instead makes it merely good. All in all, it’s a feature that successfully ratchets tension up to 11, looks stunning, and has a number of superb performances from an awesome ensemble - but also trips its way to the finish line instead of holding its arms up in victory.
It’s admittedly hard to discuss the film’s biggest issue due to spoilers (I won’t be mentioning who it is that winds up stealing the story’s focus from Emily Blunt), but it’s a big and confusing enough problem that it demands addressing. With the exception of only a handful of scenes, Kate Mercer completely drives the narrative for the first two acts of Sicario in every way possible – as it’s her journey into darkness that is creating the narrative arc. It’s her emotional status to which we’re linked. So when the movie decides to sideline her, it has the negative impact of making the movie-goer ask, Why have I been following her story this entire time instead of his? This is a terrible thought for any film to generate, but especially rough in this case because Blunt is so exceptional and gets so shortchanged.
Though the script ultimately generates serious problems, Sicario is honestly a worthwhile experience just for the tense and vicious atmosphere created by Denis Villeneuve, and the stunningly gorgeous photography of the legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins. The action in the movie is never terribly fast-paced, almost exclusively dealing in scary people slowly skulking in shadows, but that just gives the director ample time to freeze viewers on the edge of their seats – whether it’s scoping out threats at border patrol during an escort mission, or watching characters executing a major bust. Villeneuve, who previously worked with Deakins on Prisoners, also provides ample time for his director of photography to work his magic. The helicopter shots alone are magic, but just get ready for the third act’s night-vision raid.
Emily Blunt also isn’t the only actor who gives their all in the film, as both Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro deserve special mention. For his part, Brolin pulls out all of the charisma he has, and as a result is absolutely magnetic whenever he arrives on screen – very happy to wield authority over the entire mission that we see unfold through the story, while also keeping some very big secrets in his back pocket. Playing on the opposite side of the spectrum, Del Toro pulls his best enigmatic moves playing Alejandro, and the actor makes the character one that you’re always keeping a sly eye on. Villeneuve has quickly proven that he really knows how to get the best out of his casts, and this movie is another prime example.
Sicario is so fantastic for so long that you really want to love it. It delivers the best kind of nail-biting tension, and its story is so simple yet real that you can’t help but be entirely engrossed. It’s a sad thing that the conclusion changes the movie’s headline, but it does at least teach a lesson that all filmmakers could learn from: when in doubt, include more of Emily Blunt.