Sicario Review

by Steve Pulaski

Sicario may be one of the most melancholic, morally bankrupt, and ethically vacuous mainstream films to be released this year; yet, such moroseness comes with the territory of the ongoing, politician-branded “War on Drugs.” The story concerns an idealistic FBI Specials Weapons agent named Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), who, along with her partner, Reggie Wayne (Daniel Kaluuya), are recruited to work with the CIA in order to find a man responsible for savage murders in Mexico.

Doing so involves extensive work with the CIA and infiltrating cartels in Mexico, so Macer and Wayne team up with Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), a Department of Justice adviser who leads the manhunt, and Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro), who are specifically targeting a cartel boss named Manuel Díaz (Bernardo P. Saracino). Díaz is believed to be one of the main authorities behind Mexico’s explicit involvement in the cartel. Upon arriving to Mexico and experiencing the practices of both Graver and Gillick, Macer is shocked at the amoral and corrupt nature of the CIA’s practices, which have resorted to targeting innocent, often unarmed people in addition to working largely on hearsay rather than concrete evidence.

Kate Macer is one of the year’s most fascinating characters, and particularly one of the most compelling female characters of the year. Her presence initially rekindles thoughts of Maya in Zero Dark Thirty, who found herself nudging her way through the patriarchal CIA practices in order to further her belief as to where Osama Bin Laden was hiding out for over a decade. However, Kate is much more realistically written in a human sense. Maya felt more like an empty shell, ill-equipped to show emotion that wasn’t determination or archetypal female toughness.

Directed by
Denis Villeneuve
Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, Benicio Del Toro
Release Date
2 October 2015
Steve’s Grade: B-

What makes Kate Macer really interesting and believable is her mental toughness and willingness that turns into pure uncertainty and vulnerability upon arriving in Mexico. This doesn’t mean she’s weak, as I know some will take it, but it simply means that she’s indeed human and conflicted. How does she maintain her idea of ethics and moral high-ground when everyone around her is abiding the “what not to do” section of the unwritten CIA playbook? The film asks us that through many scenes of Kate’s blank stares, uncertain remarks, and general uneasiness throughout the film. She’s one of the most fascinating and ambiguous characters I’ve seen all year.

Aside from the layered characterization of Kate and Blunt’s fascinating performance, Sicario is mostly a showcase for the stylish, limitless directing of Denis Villeneuve (responsible for Prisoners, one of 2013’s best films) and the masterful cinematography of Roger Deakins, arguably one of the best cinematographers working today alongside Tim Orr and Emmanuel Lubezki. Villeneuve makes Mexico a landscape that pulsates with tension and danger, but not in a xenophobic manner, and Deakins captures the sunlit sand and the damaged landscape with an all-encompassing look at how the War on Drugs has left the country in economic and agricultural shambles.

With Villenueve and Deakins at the helm, almost nothing else matters, and that’s good, because Sicario is a film that benefits from the strength of its three strong components to sort of disguise the fact that the film is a largely unfocused and somewhat disconnected project. No matter how strong the performances are – particularly from Blunt and del Toro, who always has this delightful slowburn quality to most of his performances that doesn’t get disguised here – the character relations are surprisingly weak, giving the film a rather cold and unfeeling element. I felt like I was always within arm’s length of “Sicario,” and writer Taylor Sheridan was doing nothing to pull me in whatsoever.

Films involving the CIA always seem to emphasize this element; they frustratingly focus on the masculine qualities of these films, no matter how observant they tend to be, and the result is either a cold film with lesser character relations, a piece of flag-waving trite, or a combination of both. Thankfully, some of this is at least attempted to be remedied through Villenueve’s direction, which lingers on facial features and expressions in a manner similar to Scott Cooper’s constant emphasis on the human face in “Black Mass.” This allows for some humanity to penetrate an otherwise vacant landscape about as desolate as some of Mexico’s rural areas.

Sicario, which is clarified as meaning “hitman” in Spanish, is a strong film aesthetically, but a weaker film structurally. It features the same kind of quips and disconnected elements we’ve grown accustomed to with films revolving around the CIA, and it unfortunately shortchanges those behind the war itself, on both sides, with the exception of the morally divided Kate. Thankfully, while Sheridan’s writing may have been phoned-in to some degree, Villenueve and Deakins’ work is anything but textbook-fare.