Very Bad Things: Sicario

Photo Credit: Richard Foreman

Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Opens September 18

A sicario is a hired killer, and Sicario is also the title of a new feature by Denis Villeneuve, the director of Prisoners and Incendies—and the strength of this essentially psychological thriller (which otherwise might be titled The War on Drugs) lies in its own queasy, cul-de-sac sense of entering a room where very bad things could happen.

Villeneuve’s journey to the borderlands follows a wave of documentaries (most notably Cartel Land) that tap latent heebie-jeebies concerning the US-Mexico quagmire, not to mention longstanding cynicism surrounding drug policy. It also plumbs the depths of evil of which greedy, violent people are capable, toward foes and innocents alike. Our no-nonsense heroine in Sicario is Emily Blunt, playing a clean-cut narcotics officer thrust into a dark side of the war when she’s recruited for anti-cartel operations involving the CIA; Josh Brolin is an old-boy agent, a post-9/11 figure who’ll do whatever is necessary in the name of power plays that are both swaggering and arcane; and Benicio del Toro as an even shadowier fixer figure, making great use of his craggy mountain-face head and heavy-lidded look. Implicit throughout is a sovereign threat—that the bloody chaos of cartel rule is reaching across the border, and Americans anywhere are fair game.

Sicario struck a nerve for me, less as an up-to-the-minute treatment of American drug war, and more for Villeneuve’s talent for inducing under-the-skin malaise and angst. Prisoners—with its kidnap narrative latched to the vigilante torture of a suspect as bluntly as a strapped ticking bomb—had brute force; and Enemy, his smaller film with Jake Gyllenhaal, felt like more of an accomplishment with its enveloping anxiety. Sicario makes its points about absolute corruption corrupting absolutely (with Blunt’s partner, Daniel Kaluuya, there to point out regular safety-stops and reality checks), but it’s the ability to burrow into mood that makes it hit home. Villeneuve orchestrates action scenes with confidence—including a traffic-jam standoff, the sort of open-air showdown that’s usually a macho calling-card for Michael Mann wannabes—but these too he plays less for blammo kicks than as adventures no one really wants to be happening.

Sicario reaches its climax in that regard with a sequence involving a tunnel, which takes on nearly expressionist dimensions. With Villeneuve slated to direct another vision of Blade Runner, we’re about to see much more of his work, and whatever you feel about that, or about the dramatics of Sicario, you’ll certainly feel something—fresh disturbances lurking under the surfaces of familiar stories.


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