‘Sicario’ is a Cinematic Brutality, Beautiful and Crushing

To understand the experience of watching Sicario, imagine a knee firmly planted into your chest. No matter how much you try to breathe, you can’t. There’s no relief, no lessening of pressure just less and less air entering your lungs until the knee finally comes off your chest. You can breathe again, but the air is a little less crisp, the breathing a little more painful. Sicario is cinematic suffocation.

I aim to assure you that I mean that in a positive way.

The latest from director Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners), the hottest Francophone director since Luc Besson (Lucy, La Femme Nikita), Sicario is a story of death, cartels and the evil that men (not a gender neutral usage, more on that in a bit) do. Emily Blunt plays Kate Macer, a highly competent FBI agent who busts drug activity in Arizona. Her competence gets her pulled into a CIA operation led by Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and assisted by the mysterious Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro). The film becomes a swirl of duplicitous operations as Kate is swept about in this CIA operation’s war against Mexican cartels.

From a technical perspective, this film is damned near flawless. Director Denis Villeneuve is quickly earning a reputation as the cinematic son of director David Fincher thanks to this film and Prisoners and Enemy. Every frame of this film feels like it is under complete surgical control. There is not an ounce of fat on this film, nor is there a scene or shot that does not serve a purpose.

And it looks gorgeous. Thanks to the work of veteran cinematographer (and perpetual Oscar bridesmaid) Roger Deakins, Sicario drips with style. The deserts of the Southwest are turned alien. The shadows of night become all consuming as the characters dip inside them. The lights of day are more brutal than the darkness, the shadows more comforting.

And it sounds even better. The soundscape of this film is harsh and unforgiving, its silence punctuated by brutal breaks of violence. The soundtrack for this film by Jóhann Jóhannsson is everything it needs to be. While not something you could listen to a lot on its own, it complements every bit of the film perfectly.

Furthermore, the acting is top notch! Blunt turns in a phenomenal performance. She takes shades of Clarice Starling from Silence of the Lambs and breaks her down even further. She exudes strength yet exhibits a total vulnerability that allows her to do what the film ultimately asks of her. Brolin’s cocksure self-assurance and Del Toro’s ability to put so much behind the eyes of a dead-eyed character fill out what otherwise could have been two-dimensional supporting characters. And while it’s a small role, Daniel Kaluuya plays Blunt’s partner with a lot of life, pointing towards a potential for a great future acting career.

It’s a highly compelling story. The script by Taylor Sheridan is tightly constructed and tense beyond belief. It fully believes that there’s never a moment where you cannot crank up cinematic tension, and the movie feels a hair trigger away from violence at every moment — which makes those explosions of violence feel all the more powerful. The script takes conceptions of masculinity and people who get swept up and crushed in the world this masculinity creates, feelings of powerlessness and power and the very real darkness and evil that exists in the world and blends it into a perfectly cinematic story.

It’s a whole crew that’s putting together a really tight, top notch and incredibly well-made film.

So why don’t I love it?

Now, don’t get me wrong. I like it a lot. Clearly. It’s very difficult to not enjoy a film this well-made. It’s Silence of the Lambs for a new generation and a phenomenally intense thriller of an experience. But something about this film doesn’t take it to the next level — the level of recommending it to everyone, the level of wanting to watch it again. It’s great, but I have no particular desire to revisit it.

Perhaps it’s because at its best, the film has so much to say about the situation, but nothing to say about the way in which it shows the grays of this world: its violence. Sicario has a really big problem of straddling the line between gawking at the violence on display and using it to make a point. Sicario is a poignant morally gray thriller when it’s talking, when it’s showing the lives of its characters and telling stories. But when the time comes to let the bullets start flying, Sicario lets its ideas take a backseat to how well it can stage an action scene.

Even more so, maybe it’s the coldness that Villeneuve seems to bring to his films. Everything he makes is shot with a very professional distance. It’s something that David Fincher (Gone Girl, Fight Club), a director I love deeply, has been accused of. But Fincher lets himself be imprinted onto the film, lets some part of himself play into what goes on screen. Villeneuve stands back and lets the film happen. His craft is on display, but what is rarely on display is who he is as an artist. Sicario feels immaculately crafted, but so desperate for someone to come closer, bring a personal perspective to what’s going on.

Sicario is a film you’re really going to enjoy. It’s non-stop, sucking-the-air-out-of-your lungs-intense and incredibly well-made. But when it’s over, there’s a thought in the back of your head, a thought about something that wasn’t quite there and that could have been. A thought that keeps it from being one of the absolute best movies of the year.