Cannes Review Round-up: Denis Villeneuve's 'Sicario' on Target

Sicario Director Denis Villeneuve
Robyn Beck / eOne Films
Québécois director Denis Villeneuve is on a roll. Sicario, his first film in the Official Competition at Cannes, comes on the string of critical hits Incendies, Enemy, and Prisoners. Like Prisoners, Villeneuve’s Sicario is a Hollywood production, but Canada will surely cheer pretty darn loud if one of our own wins the Palme. (Although Todd Haynes’ Carol is probably the odds-on favourite at this point.) This new thriller starring Emily Blunt (who could be a Best Actress contender since Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara would be out of the running if Carol wins the Palme d’Dr), Benicio Del Toro and Josh Brolin is earning some wild praise. Cannes critics love the performances, technical finesse, and intensity of its action sequences with special citations going to a taut shoot-out and Roger Deakins’ cinematography. Some critics find the story lacking, but others seem to find the moral ambiguity of the film to be a highlight and are drawing comparisons to Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic. The film opens in Canada September 25 from eOne Films, so a TIFF North American or Canadian premiere is a good bet. Here’s a round-up of reviews so far:

Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), Matt Graves (Josh Brolin, left center) and Alejandro (Benicio del Toro, right) in Sicario.
Richard Foreman / eOne Films

Scott Foundas, Variety
In a terrific performance that recalls the steely ferocity of Jodie Foster in “The Silence of the Lambs” and Jessica Chastain in “Zero Dark Thirty,” Emily Blunt stars here as Kate Macer, an FBI field agent who has been forced to don a Teflon exterior in order to rise through the Bureau’s male-dominated ranks, and to cope with the depravity she frequently witnesses in the line of duty. “Sicario” begins with one such grisly find: dozens of rotting human corpses hidden behind the drywall in a suburban Arizona home belonging to an arm of a powerful Mexican drug cartel. But the carnage doesn’t end there, and when the next round of violence erupts with startling force, it sets the apocalyptic tone for everything that follows. Indeed, the opening of “Sicario” unfolds at such an anxiety-inducing pitch that it seems impossible for Villeneuve to sustain it, let along build on it, but somehow he manages to do just that. He’s a master of the kind of creeping tension that coils around the audience like a snake suffocating its prey.

Jason Gorber, Twitch
In so many ways this is the culmination of Villeneuve's capacities of a filmmaker. It has the brutal and shocking violence of Polytechnique, some of the procedural elements of Prisoners, and much of the confidence, experimentation and sense of dream that made Enemy so interesting. It's the collision of these sensibilities - the art film, the action movie - that Villeneuve shines, creating a marvelous hybrid that's a stunner.

A film that at times feels like an adventure, while at others it affects one like a stab in the stomach, Sicario's dagger plunges deeply. Its ethical ambivalence combined with its superbly executed filmmaking makes this a very special film indeed, a showcase of a great Canadian talent at the top of his creative and technical game. Bravo, Monsieur Villeneuve, bravo.

Gregory Ellwood, In Contention / Hit Fix
While Villeneuve expertly stages the film’s action elements with a patient eye that is rarely seen in commercial cinema, screenwriter Tyler Sheridan has no intention of ignoring the political realities at play.  Even if only half of what transpires in the film is true it’s an indictment against every strategy the U.S. and Mexico have put forth this century.

Todd McCarthy, The Hollywood Reporter

Denis Villeneuve’s intensely physical new work is no less disturbing than his previous features Prisoners and Incendies...

Villeneuve and cinematographer Roger Deakins worked brilliantly together on Prisoners while employing a very dark palette of blacks, gray and deep greens. Their collaboration here is equally great in a story and setting defined by parched desert tones, cheap and impermanent buildings and vast pale blue skies. A preponderance of scenes involves haves and have-nots of information or situations in which it’s unclear what the characters are really up to. The blocking, framing and use of lenses accentuate these disparities in ways that expertly heighten the tension and sense of uncertainty. There are also terrific aerial shots that show the border, including portions of the American-built fence, with great vividness.

Steve Pond, TheWrap
With a worldview as dark as night and a moody look brilliantly captured by the great cinematographer Roger Deakins, Villeneuve’s film is state-of-art blackness, though it’s also brutal enough to have caused walkouts... It’s a violent, bleak exploration of a bottomless moral quagmire, and Villeneuve is certainly a skilled enough filmmaker to pull it off... Still, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more brutally accomplished thriller at the festival this year. To borrow a word from a previous Villeneuve film, “Sicario” takes no prisoners.

Jessica Kiang, ThePlaylist
Villeneuve is truly a master director (just watch his choice of shots at times, like the big Brolin vs Blunt argument that happens entirely in a long shot with both their figures small in the frame), and there are curious flourishes in "Sicario" that remind us there's a singular sensibility behind the camera. [...] "Sicario" features neither the twistiness of "Prisoners" nor the weirdness of "Enemy," and so is just a very solid procedural that eschews bigger drama in favor of a continual slow build... to nowhere in particular. Perhaps that build even extends beyond the film's ending, to make us most excited, not for "Sicario" so much as for what Villeneuve does next.

Eric Kohn, Indiewire
With a menacing tone that holds tight from start to finish, the movie finds Villeneuve entering Michael Mann territory, building a grim story of cartel warriors on both sides of the Mexican border and the baffled innocent officer caught in the crossfire. Aided by icy turns from Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro and Josh Brolin, the taut narrative marks another fine example of Villeneuve's expert craftsmanship. At the same time, the sheer density of filmmaking talent makes its facile story stand out.
Villeneuve maintains a consistent forward momentum aided to a large degree by cinematographer Roger Deakins' sophisticated widescreen shots that cram each frame with moody details. A masterful shootout set on a highway is dynamically assembled with pulsing momentum, built from a rich blend of overhead shots, frantic closeups and abrupt bursts of violence. Few modern directors assemble sheer tension with such mechanically precise finesse.

Alex Leadbeater, WhatCulture
The spaced out narrative gifts Villeneuve the time needed to inject style into a film that in typical hands would have been dominated by plot; blacked-out cars slink through the streets of Juárez on an illegal raid with grace and Zero Dark Thirty’s nighttime raid gets a strong rival in the form of third act mission seen mostly in nightvision and infa-red. Roger Deakins frames this all with the measure you expect from him; wide-lensed landscape shots that highlight the sparsity of the backdrop are a real highlight, but the action beats, which the director builds up to slowly with plenty of tense calm before the storm, are smooth and coherent. A recurrent loud drone that persists throughout only adds to the absorption and dread.

David Sexton, LondonEvening Standard
Blunt, as ever, looks so slender and fine you are always worryingly aware of her fragility among all these scary men — that face, naturally so pretty, going so bleak. That works. She’s turning into a stunningly good action hero (Looper, Edge Of Tomorrow) and altogether this is a thrilling film, expertly directed by the French-Canadian Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Enemy) whose next project is the Blade Runner sequel.