Sicario – savage, striking, spectacular

Director Denis Villeneuve’s SICARIO is a sensational piece of filmmaking and one of the movies of the year.

I’ve said before in certain posts on this blog, the movies you love the most can be the hardest ones to write about and that’s very much the case with SICARIO.

Let’s start with the thoughts and feelings as I left the cinema: Completely gob-smacked. Utterly blown away. Cannot wait to see it again. One of the movies of 2015.

There you go. So emerging from SICARIO, the spectacular new feature by Canadian director Denis Villeneuve I felt I’d seen not just his best film to date but also an absolutely standout crime drama. It’s just taken me a while to get through the gushing and write something down. Probably best to start at the beginning…

From the opening seconds of Jóhann Jóhannsson’s pulsating score – one of the very best I’ve heard in a while – and those first startling images, courtesy of surely one of the finest cinematographers working today Roger Deakins, you know you’re watching something pretty special.

Emily Blunt and Daniel Kaluuya in Sicario

Emily Blunt as FBI agent Kate Macer and Daniel Kaluuya as her partner Reggie

We’re in Arizona, where FBI agent Kate Macer (a compelling Emily Blunt) and her partner Reggie Wayne (a nicely ballsy Daniel Kaluuya) make a very disturbing discovery in what seems like a fairly ordinary assault on a suburban house. Macer’s boss Dave Jennings (the usual slice of gravitas from Victor Garber) is rightly concerned that the reach of drug activity south of the American border in Mexico, is now very much stateside. Soon news of the discovery has reached other parties and into Kate’s life enters Matt Graver (a spot-on, smooth and dangerous Josh Brolin).

Graver thinks Kate has what it takes to join his elite team who will travel to Mexico to collect a high-ranking cartel member who’s been captured. Kate wants to know that this mission will lead them closer to finding the perpetrators of the crime in the Arizona house and once Graver has assured her it will, she’s on board. But there’s another member of Graver’s unit, the enigmatic Alejandro (an outstanding and hopefully Oscar-winning Benicio Del Toro) that piques Kate’s interest – and ours.

Finding out more about Alejandro as well going deeper into the cartel activities becomes a driving force for Kate, the film and us – and it’s a savage journey. Interviews I’ve seen with the cast and Villeneuve mention how this film tries to accurately portray things that are happening right now in this drug war, in both countries and how little has changed in the 30 years that it’s been going on. Consumption is still high and so is the violence that connects the people trying to protect the product and the ones trying to stop it. The most violent city in the world is only a few metres across the fence from one of the safest.

And one of the most gripping sequences in the movie and a display of virtuoso camerawork from Deakins, sees a fleet of black SUVs going from one side of the border to the other at tremendous speed, the inhabitants thinking they can get in and get out, causing as little disturbance as possible. From great aerial shots of the journey, intercut with the camera on the back of one of the cars as it zips through the streets, you get a dizzying mix of perspectives that is just so striking. Then you just know when Alejandro says to Kate “Welcome to Juarez” the mission is going to be anything but easy. That holds for the film itself, where it asks the audience hard questions as to the nature of this conflict and whether the extreme action of the kind depicted, is ever justified.

Benicio Del Toro as Alejandro in Sicario

Benicio Del Toro as the mysterious Alejandro

Kate is the character we see navigating those questions too and Blunt is superbly gritty, vulnerable and driven in equal measure in the role. She showed she could do feisty in Looper and Edge of Tomorrow but here, courtesy of Taylor Sheridan‘s razor-sharp and nuanced script, she’s not just an action girl but a young woman in a predominantly male world, who wants her career and her life to mean something. Although she’s a little taller than Jodie Foster, there were a couple of shots where she’s surrounded by her male counterparts that brought to mind those great moments in The Silence of the Lambs.

Del Toro is quite hypnotic as the mysterious Alejandro, drawing you in, just like Kate, wondering if you can trust him; his softly spoken delivery, masking a history that has made him who he is. As I said, I hope next year they’ll be another Oscar to add to the one he was awarded for his devastating performance in Traffic. There’s also commanding work from Jeffrey Donovan as Graver’s right-hand man Forsing, Jon Bernthal who makes the cowboy-like Ted anything but ordinary and across the border from Maximiliano Hernandez as Silvio, a key player in the events we see unfold.

But it’s Villeneuve who deserves the final credit for such an exemplary piece of filmmaking, where every element from the score to the cinematography, from the editing to the script, to the cast, is breathtakingly realised. With he and Deakins collaborating again on their next project, a sequel to the iconic Blade Runner, if it’s anything like SICARIO, we are in for such a treat.