Canadian director Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario is a no holds barred portrayal of the ongoing drug war between the U.S. and Mexican cartels that sets a new standard for action films.
Kate (Emily Blunt) is an FBI agent who is pressured by her superiors into volunteering for a special task force that specializes in disrupting the flow of drugs across the border. Blunt convincingly captures Kate’s shock as she is plunged into a discomforting world during the team’s frequent trips to the city of Juarez, which the film depicts as the epicentre of the drug trade. The rest of the cast is likewise superb, but it is Benicio del Toro who is most memorable. While little can be revealed about his character without spoiling the plot, Sicario is arguably the most impactful performance of del Toro’s prolific career.
British cinematographer Roger Deakins contributes greatly to the film’s artistic value. By shooting several scenes at twilight, he creates a resonant imagery that contrasts the serene glow of the desert landscape with the brutalities that occur on those same soils.
Deakins also incorporates non-traditional camera angles that at times evoke Kubrick. The aerial footage and forbidding soundtrack that depict the first visit to Juarez is glaringly reminiscent of Jack Torrance’s road trip to the Overlook Hotel; however, Sicario is infinitely more terrifying than The Shining given that its setting is grounded in reality. Having received twelve nominations for the Academy Award for Best Cinematography without winning, this could very well be the one that gets Deakins the trophy.
The extensive aerial footage in Sicario also complements Villeneuve’s directorial style in which he assumes the role of unbiased observer. Through this distant lens, Villeneuve objectively depicts a lawless dystopia in which the motives and tactics of law enforcement and criminals are strikingly similar. A thoughtful consideration of the victims is also communicated. In particular, the scenes of children in Juarez continuing to play soccer as their city descends into chaos around them are potent reminders of the injustices and collateral damage of the drug war. The film’s greatest achievement is that it effectively comments on a contentious socio-political issue without compromising neutrality.
Sicario picks up where Breaking Bad left off. As brilliantly as the latter addressed the drug wars, its choice of television as a medium meant that it had to at least be mindful of boundaries, even if it occasionally crossed them. While Breaking Bad appealed to a broad audience through its emphasis on personal storylines and inclusion of quirky characters, Sicario raises the stakes by disregarding these components altogether.
Kate’s personal struggle is only relevant inasmuch as it shows her powerlessness within the larger scale, a theme that is continually reinforced.
Although Sicario may be too discomforting to be rightfully categorized as entertainment, it is both a triumph in cinematography and a penetrating glimpse into one of North America’s most relevant contemporary issues.