More noise than signal


Given the prevalence of the on-going, never-to-end War on Drugs, particularly on the USA / Mexico border and the socio-economics that it inolves, it’s a wonder that it’s not rather more well-mined for serious drama than it has been. Much like the other famous was on a noun, the War on Terror, it’s largely been reduced to trivialities and rah-rah jingoistic nonsense, but Sicario seems to aim at being the narco-equivalent of The Hurt Locker, and makes a pretty good case for itself.

We’re introduced to young FBI agent Kate Mercer and her younger partner Reggie Wayne, played by Emily Blunt and Daniel Kaluuya, as they undertake a raid on a home that’s suspected of holding suspects in a kidnapping case. This soon takes turns both disgusting and fatal, as they uncover that it’s being used as a dumping ground for victims of drug traffickers, their bodies left in cavity walls to rot, and booby trapped, which sees a member of their squad killed.

While this situation is given the gravity it deserves, Mercer and Wayne reflect that similar sorts of cases are happening with a depressing increase in frequency and their efforts do not seem to be making much impact. So, when given the opportunity to join a task force charged with curtailing the activities of the Mexican drug cartels on USA soil, she accepts, and after some ultimately needless opposition from the other side is joined by Wayne.

It’s no surprise that this un-named, cloak and dagger outfit is being headed up by an Agency man, in this case Josh Brolin’s Matt Graver. Matt seems amiable enough, although being as he is employed by the CIA you are always left wondering exactly how he will stab people in the back, rather than if he will stab people in the back. The Agency in cinema has gone a long way in a short time from Jack Ryan’s naieve yet well meaning protector of the American people to a shorthand for calculated, obvious evil. I’ll leave it as an exercise for the interested to reflect on whether that’s a case of art catching up with reality, or an insufficient PR spend on the Agency’s part.

Graver’s team appears to be composed mainly of Special Forces operatives, which should give some indication of how things are expected to go, supplemented as required by FBI or US Marshals to give the barest sheen of legal legitimacy to their nod-and-a-wink sanctioned activities. There’s also room of the odd special advisor, such as Benicio Del Toro’s mysterious Alejandro, who I’m sure is on the up and up. Nothing exudes trustworthiness more than not revealing your surname.

And so they go, trying to loosen the cartel’s stranglehold on the Mexican border towns and generally shake things up a bit, with Kate refusing the backseat role she’s been given and getting rather more involved than was perhaps intended. This has the adjunct effect of the cartels’ painting a target on her back, which of course effects Kate’s private life.

Saying much more about the plot specifics won’t add much to the review, but in general it’s more concerned with the friction between doing what’s effective and what’s in the legal frameworks, and almost all of the interpersonal conflict comes from these differences in idealogy and how these, or if these, can come into balance.

All of which sounds much drier than I’d intended, especially as Sicario pulls off more moments of extreme tension than I’ve felt in a cinema for quite some time. Much like director Denis Villeneuve’s previous Prisoners, it mines dark subject matter to create believable human reactions, and is as well characterised as anything you could hope to see in a multiplex. And as it turns out, having some understanding of character helps the tension when they are thrown into danger.

Being on the frontline of this situation does provide ample opportunity for danger, and there’s two outstanding set-piece examples of ratcheting up tension that I’m reluctant to even vaguely detail in case it proves the mildest of spoilers, but they are real metaphorically nail-biting stuff. Not literally, I hope. Disgusting habit.

As with Prisoners, Roger Deakins is on D.P. duty, and he’s certainly got the experience to capture the dusty, Western feel that the script occassionally evokes as the Rule of Law shakes a little, and the Way of the Gun threatens to replace it. Special mention must also be made of the pounding, oppressive score from Johann Johannsson, which provides effective backup to the threats on screen.

So, technically and dramatically Sicario puts very few feet wrong, and as such provides one of the best movies I’ve seen this year. Very highly recommended.