TIFF15: Sicario

Much like Prisoners, Denis Villeneuve’s previous thriller that gripped audiences at TIFF two years ago, his latest film Sicario grabs a hold of you and wrings you out slowly. And like Prisoners, there’s a nightmarish quality to Sicario, which seems to offer a vision of the War on Drugs along the US-Mexico border that has filtered out all joy and hope. The pace is slow yet relentless; watching it is like the experience of a bad sleep that you can’t wake up from but that’s far from restful.

The resemblances between Prisoners and Sicario extend beyond atmosphere and tone, though, as both films operate in the crime genre but open up a range of thematic interests and layers of meaning. The title Prisoners evoked the many ways that film’s different characters were trapped, from literal imprisonment to the survivalist mentality. Sicario’s ambiguous noun title similarly suggests a range of possible meanings. An opening title explains that sicario—which comes from the same root word as “zealot” (the ancient Jewish faction that resisted Roman rule)—means “hitman” in Mexico. So who is the hitman the title is referring to?

For starters, the main character is no man: Emily Blunt plays Kate Macer, an agent on an FBI hostage-retrieval squad. When her team stumbles upon a horrifying, and unconventional, mass grave, the white government men who sit around tables and decide things (a fact the film implicitly critiques with the table’s contrast to Kate and her black partner Reggie) ask her to volunteer for a mission to strike back at the cartel ultimately responsible for the atrocities. Josh Brolin’s Matt heads the team, and he sports flip-flops and a way-too-happy-for-this-job ease. Which department Matt works for is unclear, and since he seems to have been brought in to hit back at the cartel, is he the hitman? And who is Benicio Del Toro’s mysterious non-American agent and what are his motivations? And why are we even talking about hitmen at all if this is a US government operation? The title’s ambiguity—is the sicario literal or figurative?—suggests the thematic depth of this intense thriller.

The plot is similarly—and purposely—murky, and the layers of uncertainty add to the pervasive atmosphere of ominous dread. Jóhann Jóhannson’s propulsive score, alternating between booming and background rumbles, is excellent, and Roger Deakins captures the deserts and cities of the border in eerie light. Villeneuve divides scenes of controlled close-ups with high aerial shots of the desert, not unlike True Detective season two’s constant overhead shots of freeways. As in True Detective, the God’s eye establishing shots don’t deflate the tension, but instead extend the film’s scope to an almost cosmic level.

This is a solid thriller which resonates deeply. An extraction mission by jeep into Juárez, an urban version of Hell, is an exercise in mounting tension. My only complaint is that the murky plot loses some of its grip with meanderings midway through. However, the firm grip is reasserted before the final action sequence taking place in tunnels beneath the border, and the film certainly leaves it mark on you. A day later I’m still thinking about Sicario, so it might be the kind of movie that only improves with time.

8 out of 10

Sicario (USA)

Directed by Denis Villeneuve; written by Taylor Sheridan; starring Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro, and Josh Brolin.