Actions films do not need to be dumb. Blowing up an entire caravan or imploding a city block is all good fun, but doing only that without providing anything deeper does not engage the audiences on more than one level. Sicario is a different sort of action film; one that both raises the body count and asks the audience to keep thinking throughout the film. This is a difficult balance to achieve but somehow Sicario makes it work.
The film begins with a gruesome crime. An FBI S.W.A.T. team bursts into a suburban home in Arizona. At first they do not find anything. A wayward shotgun scatters then exposes the innards of the house’s walls. The gruesome sight affects everyone who was there but agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is especially pissed. That shot was originally intended for her head. The drug war in her state has progressed to the point of diminishing returns on action, and she feels frustrated and helpless. Her boss at the FBI introduces her to a few agents from other government agencies and she seeks to make a true impact.
Blunt’s performance, in addition to the character’s presentation, carries the film from the area of possible clichés into a relatable and sympathetic territory. Kate is tough, but not unnecessarily so. She does not wear makeup, but is still feminine. Best of all, this presentation carefully constructed character is never discussed. At no point do the other characters feel the need to point out or discuss what Kate is like; she just is.
This lack of exposition is also one of the strongest elements of the plot in Sicario. As Kate is yanked into this new government task force she is left in the dark about many of the aspects of their mission. Kate, being smart and resourceful, does not always divulge how much or how little she knows about what they are doing unless it is completely imperative that she have the essential information. She is frustrated by her stance as an outsider, and this frustration is mirrored by the audience’s frustration. We only ever know as much as Kate, and often that is not much. This increases our sympathy for Kate and makes the plot of Sicario unfurl in an organic path.
In addition to the well thought story, Sicario’s look and sound elevate the film beyond brain candy. The score adds the appropriate weight and sense of doom to their mission and does not let you escape the anxiety. The film also looks better than most films you will see this year. Roger Deakins has been responsible for the photography in some of the most beautiful films in movie history (O Brother, Where Art Thou?, The Shawshank Redemption, and Skyfall) and with Sicario he further cements himself as one of the best. Watching the tracking shots over the Mexican desert or a sunset from the roof of the Arizona FBI offices have no real business being gorgeous and immersive, but Deakins makes it happen. The beauty in each frame almost makes you forget that you are watching an action film about fighting drug cartels.
It is this elevation of story and presentation which make Sicario more. It is more than an action film and Blunt’s performance is more than a typical hero. Mindless explosions are mindful and every detail attended to. Sicario is a solid film.
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Benicio Del Toro
Film Length: 113 minutes
Release Date: October 2, 2015