More noise than signal

Sicario

Republished from the show notes of my other site, Fuds on Film.

Sicario, In Which Scott Regrets His Choice Of Film To Watch The Week Before Heading Back To The North East Of Mexico.

In Sicario, from another frequent Roger Deakins collaborator Denis Villeneuve, we’re introduced to Emily Blunt’s young FBI agent Kate Mercer and her younger partner, Daniel Kaluuya’s Reggie Wayne, 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.

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.

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 for 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, and her physical and mental security.

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 legal, and almost all of the interpersonal conflict comes from these differences in ideology 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 so many moments of extreme tension. 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 nail-biting stuff.

Deakins captures the dusty, Western feel that the script occasionally evokes as the Rule of Law shakes a little, and the Way of the Gun threatens to replace it. The shots of the high desert are suitably bleak, but it’s probably the shots capturing the shots in the border tunnels that’s the high point – and in retrospect, useful prototyping for 1917’s trenches,

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 still comes very highly recommended, although if you’re better off pretending that the needless sequel does not exist. Also, subtitlers – learn how to spell Monterrey.