Master of misdirection Denis Villeneuve’s drug war commentary is an intense, edge of your seat assault on the senses.
In my recent review of Ridley Scott’s, The Martian, I mentioned that this is the time of year during which the giants of Hollywood traditionally begin to stir: Oscar season. Well, it appears Denis Villeneuve not only decided to crash the slumber party, but to provide his own wake up call. Skipping the stirring altogether, he instead created the tinsel town equivalent of awakening covered in sweat, sitting bolt upright while breathing heavily, all before rapidly firing off several shots from the .45 kept lovingly under his pillow. That creation is Sicario, and it is certainly worth shouting about.
Set deep within the US government’s on/off (un)official drug war with the South and Central American cartels – trust me when I say this is premise enough; going in blind will greatly benefit your experience – Sicario is unrelenting but beautiful in its intensity, while brutal but necessary in its assault on the senses. Villeneuve combines his usual unabashed, close-to-the-bone reality with his trademark mastery of gripping misdirection, handling Taylor Sheridan’s crackling, seemingly frank, but actually cunningly crafted script with a haunting guile those familiar with his previous work will be all to happy recognise. Whilst highly developed plot and character arcs emerged from the maze of deceit in a picture such as Prisoners however, here Villeneuve’s thriving deception actually stems from the hazy nature and conclusions of the characters themselves. That is to say, for the most part, they’re ghosts. Any relevant information or characteristics conveyed are designed to trigger conventional assumptions to the extent that the viewer never knows as much as they think they do about neither the people, nor the events they’re involved in. While this may sound like thriller movie making 101, the overt gushing from my keyboard can be traced to its place within Villeneuve’s emphatic use of the creepy connotations associated with his use of controversial drug war subject matter, as well as his overall execution, the lasting intrigue of which is something impossible to do justice to with a mere sentence. Rather, it deserves to be viewed firsthand.
As one has come to expect from Villeneuve’s films, his leading contribution is once again aided by each and every aspect of the production. Together they construct the genuinely palpable tension required off the back of such perplexing faux character development, along with the consequential edge-of-your-seat state of uneasiness experienced by the viewer from beginning to end. The cast is exceptional; Emily Blunt a martyr of vulnerable strength, Josh Brolin a shit-eating grin of smugness, and, most impressive of all, Benicio del Toro, whose cold, almost mythical presence doesn’t so much border on frightening as it does permanently reside there. The action is tight, slick; sense-splitting to view while subtle in depiction. It’s the sense of dread, anticipation of violence, and interchangeable themes of desperation and desire that provide the true action. On the music front, Academy Award nominee Jóhann Jóhannsson makes a welcome return to the Villeneuve process, his pounding, neck-hair-raising score setting the tone perfectly throughout.
The real co-star however, is renowned British cinematographer and regular Villeneuve-collaborator, Roger Deakins. Complimenting his director’s superb vision and framing with some quite stunning shots, Deakins achieves a gorgeous output of material that enhances each moment as required, whether it be practically or stylistically, setting him up nicely for an almost guaranteed Oscar nod. Between the two of them and Joe Walker’s excellent editing, not a shot is wasted, with intimidating low angles present around del Toro, use of desert sky silhouettes, and nauseating multi-angle footage during the picture’s primary vehicular sequence each a personal highlight.
Having said all that, Sicario won’t be for everyone. It’s not a conventional Hollywood thriller, action flick, or character piece – not even in a twisted sense as Villeneuve’s Prisoners was. Instead it merges aspects of all three to form something uniquely unfamiliar; in that it constantly threatens familiarity, but rarely delivers. The result is an outstanding piece of contemporary filmmaking that I hope receives the attention and accolades it deserves come awards season. Indeed, if you’re looking for something a little different that will leave you shaken but strangely satisfied, look no further than Sicario.