Saturday, October 3, 2015

"Sicario" Review: A High Caliber Of Filmmaking With All Elements Working Together In Perfect Harmony

There are some films that want so bad for you to know and understand their message that it feels like they are beating you over the head with it at times. Then there are other films that are more subtle and force you to unravel the mysteries buried deep beneath their many layers of subtext on your own that it can become just as frustrating discovering the message for yourself as it is having it shoved down your throat. The new film "Sicario" is unique amongst its peers as it straddles the line of both those extremes and the results are a bit mixed but mostly a success thanks to a top notch cast, a solid script and some absolutely stunning cinematography. Read the full review after the break.

Review Vital Stats:   
Projector Type: 2D Digital             
Film Rating: R
Film Runtime:  2 hr 0 min
Studio: Lionsgate
Release Date: October 2, 2015

Loves: Benicio del Toro, Cinematographer Roger Deakins
Likes: Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin
Neutral:  We have seen A LOT of movies about the war on drugs
Hates: Those momentary lapses in logic
Planning on going to Juarez Mexico?: Not after you see this.

After discovering dozens of bodies during what was supposed to be a routine bust for a kidnapping case, FBI special agent and tactics officer Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is subsequently thrown into the world of Cartel drug lords, assassins and government spooks. Helping Kate connect all the dots from her discovery is the enigmatic government Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) who offers her a chance to join his covert operation where he promises her that they will find the man responsible. Eager to make a difference Kate joins Graver's group without hesitation not knowing their true objective or the means they will employ to attain it which will not only open her eyes to the many atrocities of the drug war but also the unorthodox and illegal activities employed to fight it.

The war on drugs has been well documented in film which as a result has left very little ground to cover for those looking to use it as a backdrop. From seeing the President of the United States executing a vendetta against the cartel in Clear and Present Danger to the slightly absurd Once Upon A Time In Mexico where the Mexican government was helping support the drug cartels and even to the streets of L.A.with the outstanding End of Watch, it is more than evident that the drug war is well represented in the cinematic world. Sicario stands out from the crowd though by showing us the dirty dealings that we all imagine go on behind the scenes and gives a slightly different take on the tried and true procedural formula.

The character of Kate Macer isn't necessarily a real person in the respect that she is more our gateway into this world which immediately begs comparison to the Kathryn Bigelow hunt-for-Osama flick Zero Dark Thirty a couple years back which also featured a strong female character that was more or less just an amalgamation of a number of real world individuals all rolled up into one. While ZDT suffered from a lack of emotion and failed to connect on any real human level, Sicario expertly places us in the shoes of Kate where we experience first hand from her perspective the many horrors associated with the drug cartels and toll the war against them has had on both the innocents and the not so innocent alike. While Kate is more or less just a cipher, Emily Blunt is a capable enough actress that we still emphasize with her and the many dilemmas she is faced with which proves invaluable in helping the audience get engaged with her journey into darkness.

Nowhere is this more prominent than during an early scene where Kate is introduced to a third member of Graver's three man squad, Alejandro, played with a disquieting coldness by a perfectly cast Benicio del Toro. Their meeting and subsequent professional relationship is drawn out across many scenes including the film's most successfully terrifying moment during a prisoner exchange in Juarez Mexico that concludes with a tension fueled and almost haunting drive back across the border where it feels as though everyone and everything is out to get them. If Sicario excels at just one thing it would have to be imbuing a potent sense of paranoia in the audience where by the end we don't know who, if anyone, to trust.

While the setting and backdrop of the cartels versus the U.S. government is most certainly the focal point of the film from a narrative point of view, it wouldn't matter much unless we had some equally compelling characters to follow which the relationship between Kate and Alejandro is no doubt the backbone of the entire film. Not since the likes of the 2005 pimp-turned-musician flick Hustle and Flow has their been such a powerful non-sexual relationship between a man and woman on screen. Emily Blunt's passive approach is beautifully juxtaposed with Benicio del Toro's emphasis on saying as few words as possible and conveying his every thought through just a look which more often than is unnerving due to his lack of emotional expressions. Kate's relationship with her partner Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya) and Graver are no less effective if not a bit sidelined by the more intriguing interactions between her and Alejandro.

Supporting the actors is also one of the most effective film scores in quite a while. Composer Johann Johannsson is able to create and sustain an unparalleled high level of impending doom and dread from the very first shot that never lets up until those final credits roll. At times the film starts to feel like more of a horror film whenever the score is mixed with the many horrific sights we are privy to which seems to have been the intention (Those highly publicized torture scenes in ZDT don't have anything on this). Even more impressive, but not nearly as unexpected considering the man behind the lens is the expert level craftsmanship of legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins (Skyfall, No Country for Old Men, True Grit). Praising his work is like preaching to the choir but there is just no denying how much his contributions to Sicario instantly place the film in a whole other tier of excellence on just a visual level.

Even if you aren't too keen on the subject matter or even the actors the film is worth seeing in theaters simply for the striking imagery used all throughout. Deakins composes shots like no other and has been instrumental in giving the Coen brothers film's a level of polish and beauty that has established their work in ways no other cinematographer can do. He was even able to elevate a simple James Bond film into something of true beauty which has probably set the bar too high for any followers to reach. While it's difficult to say if Sicario is Deakins best work to date it is clearly one of the most visually arresting films released this year and makes Deakins a shoe-in for yet another Oscar nomination.

With all that praise however there are a few minor criticisms that must be mentioned. The biggest legitimate gripe anyone can hold against the film is that for all the skill, effort, blood, sweat and tears that was poured into this project you still can't shake the feeling that you have seen this story told before. Now, whether or not you have seen it told better is a whole other subject, but the fact remains that some of the film's suspense takes a hit when the audience is already extremely familiar with this material. Does that make any of the images or events depicted here (especially during the Juarez sequence) any less potent? No, but chances are that some may feel the effect watered down a little as a result nonetheless.

To counter that stigma though the film doesn't focus so much on the procedural aspect which would be the easy route to take and instead embeds a rather cloak and dagger element to the whole affair where we, just like Kate, aren't really sure what is going on, even when we are told outright what is going on. That level of paranoia helps create some fantastic moments where situations are set up and executed and we believe just about anything can happen and often does. Like any good mystery the key to unraveling its darkest secrets lies right in front of you with the word "Sicario" which in Mexico means hitman, something that takes many forms over the course of the film.

Another and arguably less problematic issue is the authenticity director Denis Villeneuve aims for. It's always appreciated when a filmmaker goes the extra mile to make sure their film holds up to scrutiny when it comes to the little details but it is also a double edged sword as any time something feels off or a bit unbelievable that authenticity becomes more of a hindrance than a benefit. Luckily Sicario doesn't fully succumb to this pitfall too much and only a handful of moments such as an extremely coincidental encounter between Kate and an assailant feels overly manufactured and almost unnecessary in hindsight. The entire sequence feels more orchestrated to put Kate in mortal danger since most of the film she is shielded from it which, while only for a moment, takes the audience out of the reality of the situation.

That the film is able to easily navigate around those admittedly minor issues is a testament to the quality of the end product. Very rarely do we get the whole package, acting, music, direction and the overall production is top notch across the board which makes it difficult to really come down too hard on it for any squabbles one may have against it. It seems the Oscar season has gotten off to an early start as Sicario is one of the best films released this year and a perfect gateway leading us into what is sure to be a crowded fall and winter awards season. This is a near perfect film in every way and deserves your attention.


Immediately after seeing Sicario I wasn't all that impressed with it beyond its obvious technical merits. It's story felt thin, it's characters a bit one note and its theme well worn. But after some time had passed I found myself still thinking about it with images stuck in my mind for days. It was then that I realized just how well put together and executed Sicario really was and that anyone who dismisses it for the same reasons I almost did really needs to sit back down and give the film a second chance because this is high caliber filmmaking at its most excellent. Great stuff.

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