TIFF Review: 'Sicario'

(USA, 121 min.)
Dir. Denis Villeneuve, Writ. Taylor Sheridan
Starring: Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, Benicio Del Toro
Programme: Special Presentations (North American Premiere)
Photo courtesy of TIFF.
Denis Villeneuve is a marksman. The great Canadian director of Incendies, Prisoners, and Enemy delivers another solid film with the exhilaratingly intense drug war drama Sicario. Sicario is Villeneuve’s second Hollywood production after Prisoners, and every ounce of his talent still stands. Like fellow Québécois filmmaker Jean-Marc Vallée (whose Demolition opened the Festival), Villeneuve even improves in Hollywood. Sicario hits with deadly aim.

Villeneuve wades two borders south of Canada as this drug war drama explosively traverses the USA and Mexico, creating an engrossing borderland tale about a futile war. Emily Blunt stars as Kate Mercer, a FBI agent who works kidnapping details until Matt (Josh Brolin), her flip-flop wearing superior, taps her for a special mission to ferret out the jefes of the cartels that leave messes of cadavers for her to clean up.

The drug trade is nasty business, as Sicario shows from its gut-punch of an opener that sees Kate discover a house full of remains buried between the walls. Anyone is fair game and everyone’s a suspect, since the only reliable truth to the business is that everyone gets corrupted. It’s another F on America’s war report card.

Kate discovers the full extent of the drug trade’s pervasiveness when Matt summons her for an ambiguous assignment working with Mexican ally Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), whose authority is even more unclear than the mission objective is. The drug war has no rules and is a game in which nice guys finish last, and Kate’s first day on her new assignment shows how brutally cutthroat the drug war is—both from the POV of the lawmen and the outlaws.

A heart-pounding shootout amidst a traffic jam at the Mexico/USA border spills the bloodshed across both sides of the border. Villeneuve, reuniting with Prisoners DP Roger Deakins, shoots this sequence with a dramatic wallop as frenetic gunfire disorients the viewer, yet the camera trains in and out of traffic, dodging cars like Frogger, as it offers an all-seeing eye to the all-encompassing violence. Villeneuve’s direction is precise and Deakins’ cinematography is, of course, excellent. The same goes for a riveting sequence in the final act as the agents stage a covert op and infiltrate the cartel’s underground network. Villeneuve films the scene with a mix of night-vision and thermal cameras that cast the agents as ants in a sprawling network. Predators lurk behind every door and there’s a devil in every corner of the frame, and Sicario intensely gives the viewer a breathless high as Kate fights for her life against undiscernible baddies and good guys who are a shade of grey at best.

The film offers a brutally high body count—like, Hamlet high—as violence ripples into Kate’s home as her investigation deepens. By making the sturdy lead a petite female, Sicario introduces a heroine in the vein of Clarice Starling as Kate brings figurative balls that outmatch her perceived vulnerability. She might not look as physically strong as her teammates are, but she’s a wily rock: shrewd, perceptive, and unshakable. Another of the film’s suspenseful moments follows Kate home from the bar where a prospective one-night stand turns into an attempted murder. Kate looks like prey, but she’s a killer, and Blunt’s fierce performance gives the character heart, courage, and agency. Empowered not by her physicality but by her ability to critically assess the situation and ask the right questions, Kate is a formidable ally for the viewer. She’s the only one we can trust and the conviction of Blunt’s performance holds the viewer’s hand every step of the way—and Sicario is so intense that ample hand-holding is needed.

The real killer of the film, though, is Benicio Del Toro with his coolly ambiguous performance as Alejandro. A stealthy killer, Alejandro straddles the sides of good and evil during Kate’s investigation and plays the roles of both friend and foe. He guides the investigation with an intimidating stare and unnerving confidence, and Del Toro plays the team’s insider as a man marked and burned by experience in the kill or be killed mentality of the drug trade. He owns the film in its unexpected final act, surprising the audience with his cutthroat coldness and deadly aim. Sicario pulls no punches.

Sicario marks another remarkable drama from Villeneuve as the film plays out as a non-stop adrenaline rush. The pulse-pounding score by Jóhann Jóhannsson puts one’s heart on one’s throat as the tension mounts until the film’s violent finale that shakes one’s confidence in the system. It’s hard to stand up once Sicario is over. The film leaves one shaken not just by the action, but by the incredibly bleak parable on a futile war that knows no heroes.

Rating: ★★★★½ (out of ★★★★★)
Sicario opens in theatres Sept. 25.

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