‘Sicario’ review: Can’t Tell, Cartel, Horror

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Sicario poster

This has become an unintentional trilogy of drug-laced movie reviews, but, rounding up this triumvirate is an extremely satisfying and unsettling movie. Udta Punjab was a terrific snort of the very real -time problem that’s powdering not just the youth in a particular Indian state, but rearing its addling head across the country; Raman Raghav 2.0, though a murderous look at a serial killer, also had a junkie cop in hot pursuit. And now Sicario, in the wrap-up round, that simply crackles right from the opening shot till it ends rather acceptingly of what life is in a city torn apart by cartel wars.

Directed by Denis Villeneuve and written by Taylor Sheridan, Sicario takes you into the dishabilled city of Juárez, where fireworks at night are red-shot flares of rival gunshots, and the background sound isn’t the comforting sound of traffic, but the spitfire sound of guns sounding as distant and routine as firecrackers. The movie opens, though, in a small, decrepit compound in Arizona, where a FBI SWAT team descends ostensibly to rescue hostages, but what they walk into is a creepy house of horrors. And that’s how you’re introduced to Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) – headlining the rescue team – and her partner Reggie Wayne (Daniel Kaluuya). After a sequence that’s sure to rip your senses, as much as it does Kate’s and Reggie’s, their boss, Dave Jennings (Victor Garber) leads Kate into a rather mysterious meeting. The meeting’s led by men from the Department of Defense and a CIA officer named Matt Graver (Josh Brolin). The team leads Kate to believe that they’re setting up a task force to demolish the Sonora Cartel in Mexico, led by Manuel Díaz (Bernardo P. Saracino) – and that this could be her way of getting even with those responsible for what happened in Arizona.

Emily Blunt - slow crumble
Emily Blunt: slow crumble

From here on, you and Kate are pretty much partners in puzzlement, as you follow Matt, a mysterious “consultant” Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro), and their team of gunmen into Juárez. Director Villeneuve, wily and smart, keeps you one step behind the proceedings, and you crane your mind to try and second-guess what Matt and Alejandro are up to. There’s a brilliant extraction sequence that’s not as much about the pick-up as much as it is about the transport from Juárez to El Paso. Villeneuve and cinematographer Roger Deakins (him of a bedazzling resume including the brilliant No Country For Old Men and the snazzy Skyfall) make you giddy with some breath-taking aerial shots of the convoy, the bleak and grim landscape, and then get you into claustrophobic lanes and expressways. But that’s just the beginning of the mystery and the gripping action that lies ahead.

Benecio - focusing on the kill
Benecio del Toro: killingly efficient

There’s a date scene between Kate and Reggie’s friend, Ted, that begins as a regular canoodling affair, but quickly turns into a sequence of terror and fight for survival. There’s a brilliantly choreographed sequence that has Kate follow the Matt-Alejandro team into a tunnel that the drug bandits use to smuggle drugs into the US – note the breathless POV camera in night vision goggles that’s sure to put you right in the middle of the action. And then there’s the slow burn revelation of what the mission is all about, even as the action suddenly focuses from the team to one amongst them.


Director Denis Villeneuve is in top form, making Sicario a gritty, dark, and ultimately frightening experience. You’re never sure where his dark vision will take you next – and he takes his time getting you there. He creates an atmosphere that stinks of death and despair; and when he takes you along for the raids, you’re scared, breathless, and engaged from your gut. Each and every sequence is shot with an almost languid and assiduous approach, but you know better than to fall for this – for, lurking behind every shot is an insidious motive – and it is this knowledge that keeps you on the edge. Aiding Villeneuve is the master cinematographer Deakins (who won an Academy Award nomination for this movie) – note the stunning scene when the crack team approaches the tunnel – there’s silhouettes across a vividly painted sky in blue and red, speared by black, angry clouds. Simply gasp-inducing.

Josh Brolin - laconically smug
Josh Brolin: laconically smug

Adding to the ominous and visceral impact of Sicario is composer Jóhann Jóhannsson’s foreboding and on-a-thin-wire, Academy Award-nominated, background score. Very tight, very atmospheric, and very effective, note the aforementioned tunnel sequence – as Kate and the gang enter the tunnel Jóhannsson uses an ominous solo cello that approaches you from the center, while synthesizer pieces, slicing through your senses scythe-like, attack you from the sides. Truly, a master orchestrator.

Benecio del Toro, Josh Brolin, Emily Blunt: three’s not happy company

Of the cast, Emily Blunt is terrific and effective – her helplessness and bewilderment match yours, and she takes care not to be too carried away by her character’s principles or righteous nature. Her slow crumble of defiance and confidence is marked by a performance that’s brave and truthful. Josh Brolin cracks it all the way as a patronizing, smug officer, who knows he’s in control, even when seemingly he isn’t. There almost isn’t a scene where Brolin isn’t smiling, and there’s also not a moment when he lets the power and hold of his character slip away – he’s that smooth good. And of course, there’s the quiet, smouldering Benicio del Toro, who seems benign enough, until he explodes into a blitzkrieg of sharp action and shooting; and even then, his is an act of focus and unwavering priority – and all the while, he makes you care, and you’d like to think he cares too.

Sicario is a punch-in-the-solar-plexus achievement, that’s as effective as an action thriller (there’s no fast and furious action) as it is as a smouldering statement on the rotten world of cartels. Little wonder that even the folks of Juárez protested against the portrayal of their city in Sicario, of what they insist is now a dark past of cartel land. Regardless, you cannot help but think, as the movie ends, of how people living in such circumstances, can’t tell, won’t tell, and simply accept the distant sound of gunfire as just another day not in paradise.

Watch the trailer of Sicario here:



  1. I really enjoyed this one too. Deakins’ cinematography added so much, especially in the border crossing scene (I did a little in depth look at it at https://mondaymorningmoviequarterback.wordpress.com/2016/01/24/why-playing-with-shot-length-makes-sicarios-border-crossing-so-tense/ if you’re interested).
    I didn’t notice the music as much as the overall sound design – the scene where del Toro stops the drug dealer on the highway at night was so spooky as it cut between the noisy car interior and then the silent wide shot.
    Excited to see what Villeneuve does with Blade Runner.

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