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Blu-ray Review: Sicario

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When you’re watching a gripping thriller like Sicario, set within America’s war on drugs on the border with Mexico, its intricate narrative web and its sociopolitical implications are so absorbing you can’t help but wonder whether the events unravelling before your eyes bear any truth. However, no title card prior to the fade in claims that the film is based on a true story or is inspired by true events (as per Hollywood routine nowadays). The only thing that appears on the black screen is the definition of “Sicario”: a word that comes from the zealots of Jerusalem, killers who hunted the Romans who invaded their homeland; in Mexico the word means hitman.

Upon release the film has raised some eyebrows regarding whether it portrays the reality of what’s going on down there accurately. Experts on the topic have underlined the film’s many faults in that respect yet for what it is, a work of fiction and a piece of entertainment, Sicario is definitely worth your time as it feels realistic and compelling thanks to the craftsmanship of Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners),legendary director of photography Roger Deakins (Skyfall) and the wonderful, cast led by a perfectly measured Emily Blunt.

The British actress plays the character at the heart of the story, Kate Macer, an idealistic FBI agent specialized in kidnappings, who at the beginning of the film is shaken up during a SWAT operation on a kidnapping case. Her team has just a raided a house in Arizona where dozens of corpses are hidden in the walls and whilst investigating the scene, a hidden device explodes, killing two officers. The place is actually linked to the Mexican drug cartel operating on American soil and when her boss recommends her to Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), a CIA undercover officer and DOD adviser, Kate volunteers to join the man’s Delta Force operation searching for the men responsible for that carnage.

The objective is smoking out Manuel Díaz, second in command of Mexican lord Fausto Alrcón, who handles operations on US soil, but in order to do so they need to get their hands on Manuel’s brother and main collaborator Guillermo. Kate would like to involve Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya), her partner at the FBI but Matt keeps him at bay since the guy is also a lawyer. It doesn’t take long for Kate to butt heads with Matt as the man lies to her about their destination, telling her they’re going to El Paso whilst instead he gets her on a plane to Juárez, Mexico, (which is where Guillermo is hiding). Matt’s partner, Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), joins their flight, unsettling Kate with his quiet and elusive demeanour and when she is involved in an unorthodox operation to capture Guillermo, breaching protocol and legality, she begins to question Matt’s motives for getting her on board.

Blunt is riveting as she conveys Kate’s idealism and strength without ever forgetting her weaknesses, getting the audience to feel her frustration for the reticence she’s dismissed with every time she tries to dig deeper. Brolin is also great at playing her counterpart with the right dose of sarcastic humour that’s comforting, especially when you’d like to often slap him. But it’s Del Toro who’s got the meatiest role and even when the mystery behind his character is uncovered, he manages to still keep you engaged and intrigued.

Detractors have lamented stereotypical characterization and inaccurate depiction of reality as the film’s biggest flaws but personally I simply took Sicario for what it is, a work of fiction. It’s a taut crime drama that keeps you on the edge of your seat with its action and suspense bits but also makes you think about the effects the war on drugs has had so far on the lives of those involved directly or indirectly. The city of Juárez didn’t appreciate the negative portrayal of their city and tried to boycott the release, claiming that things have changed since the film was shot, yet the filmmakers never declare to tell a story based on true events.

Sicario is actor Taylor Sheridan’s screenwriting debut and although taking some liberties when depicting the American war on drugs, he does a great job at creating an intense thriller that, if anything, makes us want to learn what the real situation is over there today. His characters may not strike for originality but are effectively built and seamlessly fulfill their roles plus the way he shifts the focus from Kate to Alejandro in the final act, albeit a bit perplexing at first, is thoroughly justified in the epilogue. For most of the film we feel as unsettled as Kate is for being thrown in a world she knows nothing about and for reasons that aren’t clear. And when she uncovers the truth but is still rather powerless about it, her hesitation and fragility feel raw and authentic.

Denis Villeneuve shows once again he’s got a talent for genre films with morally grey areas set in dark, gritty worlds. After Prisoners he crafts another visually stunning film, collaborating with multi-Oscar nominee Roger Deakins behind the camera to deliver an immersive cinematic experience. For obvious setting reasons, the colour palette here is warm and bright as opposed to Prisoners’ cold and mostly dark world. Yet the bleakness is similar and it doesn’t come just from the environment but from the people who gravitate in it. In the final scene of the film, something spoiler free but poignant and chilling occurs: a children’s football game in Juárez is disturbed by gunshots far off in the distance. Everyone stops for a moment but then the match promptly reprises as if nothing has happened. What’s bleaker than a world where such a thing is considered normal?

4-out-of-5

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