By Michael Arruda
In Spanish, “sicario” means “hit man.” In English, it means “hit movie.”
That being said, SICARIO is not exactly tearing it up at the box office, which is a shame, since it’s one of the best films of the year.
SICARIO is the new thriller by director Denis Villeneuve. Its story about the hunt for a Mexican drug lord has it all: riveting direction by Villeneuve, a multi-layered and deeply resonating screenplay by Taylor Sheridan, and fantastic acting performances all around, led by Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro, and Josh Brolin.
Wow. And wow again.
Del Toro has been exceptional in a bunch of movies, so it would be difficult to call his role in this movie as the mysterious and oh-so-cool and deadly Alejandro his best, but he is phenomenal here. Alejandro instantly joins the ranks of cinema’s most fearsome hitmen.
Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is an idealistic FBI agent who in the film’s opening segment leads a drug raid on an Arizona home that leads to both a gruesome discovery and tragedy. Kate and her agents discover over two dozen dead bodies buried within the walls of the house, and later as the agents continue to scour the grounds, a bomb goes off killing members of Kate’s team.
Kate’s exemplary work attracts the attention of special agent Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), and he invites Kate to join his team. His mission is to hunt down the drug lord responsible for the death of Kate’s men, and so naturally Kate wants in, despite her misgivings about the operation, fueled by Graver’s evasive answers to her questions. For instance, he refuses to give her a straight answer regarding the government agency for which he works.
Kate’s by-the-book partner Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya) warns Kate not to go, but she is determined to take down those responsible for her agents’ deaths. Things grow murkier when Kate learns that they’re not going to El Paso as promised but to Mexico.
On the plane to Mexico, Kate meets Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), a man whose demeanor immediately raises a red flag for Kate. She demands to know who Graver and Alejandro are working for, and she wants to know if they are, as she suspects, CIA. Graver, in his usual relaxed, calm, confident manner, tells Kate to chill and to simply go along for the ride to observe and learn, because as he says, the battle that they’re taking to Mexico, is on its way to the States, and she’ll soon be waging a similar battle back home.
Kate relents and goes with Graver and Alejandro to Mexico, where she sees firsthand the horrors and crimes committed by the drug lord they are seeking, a man known as Fausto Alarcon. Graver has assembled a crack team including Texas Rangers and other military types to complete their mission which is to go in and extract one of Alarcon’s cousins in order to stir things up and ruffle Alarcon’s feathers. Kate is uncomfortable by the methods she witnesses, knowing they are illegal, but she stays with Graver and his team anyway.
They get their man, and in one of the film’s tenser sequences, attempt to bring him back across the border to the States, where Graver’s work is far from finished. As Kate is drawn deeper into a world she wants no part of, a world where the lines between friend and foe become more and more difficult to discern, she struggles between keeping to her ideals and knowing what is right, and helping Graver, a man who’s eventual goal in spite of his off the chart methods is exactly what Kate wants to achieve.
SICARIO tells a fascinating story that works on multiple levels. It’s written by Taylor Sheridan, who has worked more as an actor than as a writer. Sheridan played Deputy David Hale on the TV show SONS OF ANARCHY (2008-2010). SICARIO is his debut screenplay, and it’s pretty darned impressive!
We are immediately drawn into Kate Macer’s story from the very first scene. We share her determination to hunt down the man responsible for her team’s death, but this is no vengeance plot. Like Kate, we become increasingly frustrated by the constant slipperiness of Matt Graver. We are made uncomfortable by the cold presence of Alejandro. And like Kate, we are increasingly torn between these men’s methods and their goal.
Alejandro’s story might be even more compelling. At first, he’s this shadowy figure who we, like Kate, immediately suspect is not who he seems. And we’re right. But his back story explains his motivations, and as the movie goes on he becomes more of a central player. The best part of Alejandro is his complexity. He puts Kate on edge immediately, and yet he’s the man when they’re in Mexico who seems to have her back. She eventually trusts him, but later his actions cause her to pull a gun on him, an action he quickly makes her regret.
And the plight of the Mexican people, caught in the crossfire between the drug cartel on the one hand and the U.S. government on the other, is captured brilliantly yet simply in a touching subplot involving a corrupt Mexican police officer named Silvio (Maximiliano Hernandez) and the relationship he shares with his son. The simple shot near the end of the movie of his son standing next to his empty bed is just one of the many powerful images captured in SICARIO and succeeds in making its point far more effectively than any long drawn out scene of dialogue.
Directed by Denis Villeneuve, SICARIO is full of potent images. From the disturbing sight of naked mutilated bodies hanging above Mexican streets, to the more subtle scenes of Mexican children playing soccer with the sound of gun shots in the distance, to the blazing display of gunfire and explosions in the Mexican night witnessed by Kate from a distant rooftop.
Villeneuve also directed the well-received kidnapping thriller PRISONERS (2013) starring Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal. I enjoyed SICARIO better than PRISONERS, as it tells a more complex story and it’s more of a complete package.
SICARIO also features some of the more riveting film sequences I’ve seen in a while. The trek to extract the prisoner from Mexico, where Graver’s convoy gets stuck in traffic because of an accident, allowing drug hitmen the time they need to descend upon them, is one of the more suspenseful and exciting sequences in the film. Likewise, later in the film a pursuit into an underground tunnel is just as exciting. There are plenty of nail-biting moments in SICARIO.
The cast is flawless.
Emily Blunt is outstanding as Kate Macer. She’s the perfect combination of tough-as-nails strength and later as her world crumbles around her, frightened vulnerability. Blunt’s performance in the Tom Cruise science fiction film EDGE OF TOMORROW (2014) was one of my favorite parts of that movie. She’s even better here in SICARIO. It’s Blunt’s best performance to date.
Even better is Benicio Del Toro as Alejandro. He possesses such a presence in this movie that he can unnerve you just by standing there without uttering a line. And when he gets into his adversary’s faces, and he does, up close, you can feel their trembling. Yet, as played by Del Toro, Alejandro is not a one-note heartless robot of a killer. He’s much more intricate than that, and while he may be one of the more cold-blooded hit men you’ll find in a movie, his backstory and its resolution, may have you shedding a tear.
Alejandro also shares a bond with Kate. When he tells her that she reminds him of someone special from his past, it’s not a cliché set-up for a long lost love, but something deeper and more touching.
Josh Brolin is just as good as his fellow co-stars, playing the evasive and confident Matt Graver who doesn’t seem to have a straight answer for anything, and yet he often is the most honest man in the story. And that’s because in the process of not answering Kate’s questions, he tells the truth. It’s just not what Kate wants to hear, but the information is accurate. If ever there was a true CIA man it’s Graver. Brolin is perfectly cast as the relentless government agent who is so relaxed chasing mass murdering drug lords that he wears sandals during high level meetings and sleeps like a baby on flights into enemy territory.
The supporting cast is also excellent. Daniel Kaluuya is memorable as Kate’s loyal partner Reggie Wayne. In addition to being an FBI agent, he’s also a lawyer, and he represents law and order in this story, constantly attacking Graver and Alejandro and their methods. He’s also loyal to a fault to Kate, and in a world where it’s difficult to know who to trust and who might shoot you in the back, it was refreshing to have a character like Daniel in the story.
Victor Garber [ARGO (2013)] makes a memorable impression as Kate’s boss Dave Jennings, and Jon Bernthal (THE WALKING DEAD) impresses in a small role as a man Kate meets in a bar for what seems like a harmless sexual encounter, except that in this story very little is as it seems.
Probably the best of the supporting roles belongs to Maximiliano Hernandez who plays the Mexican police officer Silvio. In a series of brief scenes, we get to know him as a father to his young son, which makes his ultimate and unfortunate fate as he crosses paths with Alejandro all the more sad and touching.
SICARIO also has an effective music score by Johann Johannsson which completely captures the mood of this one and complements the edge-of-your seat suspenseful scenes.
SICARIO is the perfect combination of suspense and drama. It’s riveting from start to finish, and it’s full of deep layers that keep this one from being superficial and trite. It’s as complex as the multi-faceted drug world it portrays, and yet it’s never confusing. Like Kate, we are torn by this world, are put off by the methods and partnerships embraced by our own government officials to get the job done, and yet also like Kate, at the end of the day we are not completely sure we want them to be stopped.
SICARIO is a deeply satisfying and rewarding movie that will have you on the edge of your seat throughout. It’s one of the best films of the year.