Movie Review: Sicario

My review of The Martian will be up tomorrow. You might have difficulty deciding which to see because both are fantastic.

* * *

The Drug War is one wrought with chaos and stalemate in an endless cycle of violence that has gone on since the early 70s. Though not as important as the fight against Muslim Extremism, it is a war nonetheless. My dad was even a part of it in the late 80s. The epicenter of this conflict lies just south of the border. It is our Troubles; Mexico, America’s North Ireland; Juarez, our Belfast; and the cartels, the terrorists we must eliminate to bring some measure of peace to both countries. But unlike the time when Britain tried to tame the Irish over territory, our war is about a substance.

The inspiration for many crime and action movies has been the Drug War. From Scarface to even Commando in some ways, cocaine, explosions, and sociopaths go together about as well as the UN and incompetence. Of all those films, however, few are actually about the War. Sabotage is the best example I know of and now there is Sicario. Was it a conventional action movie or did it have something more to say on the Drug War?

Upon discovery of a mass grave connected to a major cartel, Kate, played by Emily Blunt, volunteers for a CIA taskforce dedicated to causing chaos in Juarez, a hotbed of anarchy and criminality in Mexico. But as she soon finds out, the morals of her commander, Matt, played by Josh Brolin, conflict with her own as she gets to the bottom of what he is really after.

Sicario takes a pragmatic approach to examining the Drug War. Human nature plays a big part as the characters accept a portion of Americans enjoy recreational substances. It is not until the worst-case scenario presents itself they realize the depth and depravity cartels go to for their business. When confronted with such madness, they reply in the only way the enemy would respond: more madness. The film asks how far can one go on compromising their principles for some semblance of order in a war with no conceivable end in sight? The answer is a moral quandary many will struggle with by the conclusion.

Classification by genre is difficult. It is certainly a crime drama, but with director Denis Villeneuve at the helm, Sicario is better suited as a suspense thriller. With his minimalist style from Prisoners, he brought a level of unease that would not have worked in a typical crime drama.

Camera angles are cut down to about two to three with a scarcity of cuts in between. Shots hold on characters and scenes for long periods of time with little to no score. The tension full atmosphere reaches uncomfortable heights and never goes down until the end. Even the landscapes bear a lingering menace as the camera pans across barren terrain at a slow track. The best shots are so good I cannot describe them without spoiling them.

The reserved performances from all sides of the cast helped the atmosphere as much as the direction. Benicio Del Toro’s Alejandro, however, not only stole the movie, but also killed and disposed of the corpse in pieces. He is scarier and more sinister in every way possible than Johnny Depp’s James “Whitey” Bulger and he does it on sheer presence alone. He has maybe a page worth of lines total and does nothing to make you fear him. Blunt and Brolin managed to keep up and came through with the former’s hardline black and white morality and the latter’s developed pragmatism.

Sicario and by extension Prisoners is the way you do suspense. It is perfect in that regard while providing a commentary on the Drug War and some action sequences akin to The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty. And if you are a Punisher fan like me you will find many parallels to Nathan Edmondson’s arc. Jon Bernthal even shows up for a brief appearance, bringing to mind the idea of Villeneuve directing a possible Punisher movie.

A man can dream…

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