Sunday, October 4, 2015


 5 / 5 

Sicario opens with a scene of deeply unsettling intensity, then refuses to let up.  It's a movie of startling complexity, violence and disillusionment, an angry and cynical movie that marries story, acting, image and sound with assured command.  It's hard to imagine there will be a better or more bracingly original movie this year.

The opening scene takes place in suburban Phoenix.  FBI agents are raiding a tract home.  What they find there defies logic and humanity.  Nothing could be worse than what they see.  Except, things get worse.

One of the FBI agents is Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), who is tough as nails and battle ready.  Or so she thinks.  Her bosses are so impressed by her ability to keep her head about her in the chaos and carnage of what happens in that house that they single her out for a new assignment.

She doesn't understand what it is, only that it involves a massive drug cartel that is responsible for the mayhem, which kills two of her co-workers.  Loyal to a fault, with a strong need for vengeance, she doesn't hesitate to volunteer for the assignment, though she isn't entirely clear why her partner, Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya), is excluded from selection, or why  her FBI boss (Victor Garber) or the other senior-level government agent in the room (Josh Brolin) seem so cavalier about the proceedings -- Brolin's character wears flip-flops instead of a suit and tie.

Kate hasn't had a chance to think about any of this before she's whisked off to an Air Force Base and taken on board a private jet to fly, she thinks, to El Paso.  That's not where they're heading.  They're going south of the border, flying over the chain-link fence that separates the U.S. from Mexico, and they're going to find Guillermo, the man responsible for what happened in Arizona.

But Kate has her doubts.  Just one man couldn't do all that -- and she's right.  They want to cut the head off the monster, and they know that in the drug world, a mythological creature like the Hydra still exists -- once they take down Guillermo, more heads will pop up in unexpected locations.

This is a war.  Call it the "war on drugs" if you want, but it doesn't involve Nancy Reagan and Barack Obama spouting homilies or SWAT teams invading homes in the Hollywood Hills.  This is military-grade war, and on more than one occasion Kate reminds Matt Graver (Brolin), the man without a department -- or maybe with too many departments -- that she doesn't have to do this.

But she will, of course.  She's too far in now.  Down in Ciudad Juarez, they extricate Guillermo, and just as they're all about to get away, the border checkpoint erupts in gunfire.  Kate's killing people.  People she doesn't know.  For a project she's not sure about.

And like this, Sicario just keeps moving forward, occasionally pausing for some observations by Alejndro (Matt's partner, played by Benecio del Toro), which just seem to get more and more ominous.

Surveillance and some really questionable torture techniques have uncovered a tunnel between the U.S and Mexico, and they're going to go in it and see where it leads them.  It won't be anyplace good, for sure.

Kate, particularly, takes a wrong turn in one of those tunnels and in an instant she sees the true plan being executed by someone she thought was an ally.  She is alone, has no idea what to do about this information, no one to report it to.  Just how corrupt is the group assigned to prevent corruption?  Just how drug-addled its the group assigned to prevent drugs from entering the United States?  Kate begins to find out the answers to those questions.

Kate finds every moral compass she's ever used fluctuating wildly.  Here in the netherworld between America and Mexico, between murder and death, between diplomacy and destruction, the compass only spins wildly out of control.

Throughout most of Sicario, even the most astute audiences will be perplexed.  With rare exceptions, we know only as much as Kate knows, which isn't a lot -- but by the time the movie ends it will be more than we care to know.

Sicario is a movie that plays right into Donald Trump's worst nightmares of life in Mexico; he could well use this movie as a political ad.  But it's not at all a political thriller.  It's a hard-hearted, cold-faced crime-thriller that bears the hallmarks of a lot of time spent by its French-Canadian director, Dennis Villeneuve, researching just how crazily off the rails the "good guys" have careened to reach the bad ones. Its nearest cinematic cousin can be found in the off-putting, chaos-on-a-hot-night depravity of Orson Welles' Touch of Evil, but Sicario might well be even more assured and finely crafted than that masterpiece.

Propelled by a pulsating, visceral score by Jóhan Jóhannson, which infuses every moment with dread, Sicario refuses to let its intensity flag even through the final few minutes, a terrifying, nail-biting scene between Kate and one of the men she thought she could trust.

Kate is a modern-day Clarice Starling, sure that her calm demeanor and fierce intelligence will propel her to safety just like it always had.  Sicario offers this observation: An FBI agent against a single serial murderer was a cake-walk compared to what's going on here, when the good guys fight even dirtier, with even less humanity, than the "bad" ones.

Sicario is a remarkable movie.  I went into it serenely unaware of to expect -- and left both energized by a genuinely great film and yet feeling some of Kate's numb hopelessness, resigned to the reality of what happens when 20% of the population still wants these drugs and wants them now, and will tacitly fund and support these horrors as long as they get their fix.  The movie doesn't make a big point of preaching; it just insists on telling its labyrinthine story at full speed and with unflinching calm.

By subsuming the trappings of an old western (lots of gruff older men, Texas twangs, flat and bleached-out vistas of the uncompromising desert), Sicario creates something urgent and new: a crime drama that can't quite get us to figure out who exactly is the bad guy (at least, not thematically).  Sicario dares you to think to fill in the blanks and make the conncetions yourself -- because the bad guy may not be so bad, or he may be the devil himself.  There's really no way to know, and there's no time to care, because the drugs just keep flowing and flowing and flowing.  No way to stop them.  No time to stop trying.  No matter the casualties along the way.

Impossibly tense, meticulously crafted, with enough quiet spaces to give you just a moment to think about what's gone before, Sicario succeeds on every level.  It's one of the very best movies of the year.

Viewed Oct. 3, 2015 - Pacific The Grove


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