Earlier this month I got the chance to see a theatre adaptation of the play that inspired Denis Villeneuve’s, Incendies. While this adaptation was good in its own respect – the ambitious scenography especially – it became clear just how well the French-Canadian filmmaker understands human despair, and how to make a movie filled with tension and discomfort. It’s obvious in all his movies, from the gruesomeness in Polytechnique to the haunting paranoia in Enemy, and Sicario is no exception.
Sicario‘s screenplay – by debutant Taylor Sheridan – is less then perfect. It tells a decent story, but is buried by genre clichés and tropes. In the hands of a less-experience director, this could pull the entire movie down with it, but Denis Villeneuve manages to make it one of this years most impressive exercises in direction. He has reunited with Roger Deakins and Jóhann Jóhannsson (cinematography and score) to imbue the screenplay with his auteurial sensibilities. Deakins’ cold and dynamic overhead shots are stunningly freakish – he captures the vast emptiness of the Mexican-American border perfectly – and the disconnected, but vibrant, score is dread inducing from the very first note, to the very last.
It opens with a horrid discovery, and a thundering explosion; both setting the stage for the brooding violence this world has to offer, and displaying the raw power of its audiovisual. Onsite is Kate (Emily Blunt), an idealistic FBI veteran who is encouraged to volunteer for a special task force set to “find the men truly responsible” for these atrocities. She joins the jovial Matt (Josh Brolin) and the introverted and mysterious Alejandro (Benicio del Toro), but the secrecy and disregard towards protocol within the task force makes Kate uneasy and sceptical; but no reassurance or answers are given.
Sicario is built on and around this secrecy – the inherent displeasure of not knowing. Like Kate, the audience is kept in the dark on the operation and what their true motivations are. This is a narrative device that can easily become gratuitous, more inclined to create a mystery than a cohesive narrative, and this is probably Sheridan’s biggest achievement as a debutant screenwriter. He manages, in the midst of his clichés and obvious inspirations, to shape a mystery that not only makes sense, but keeps you guessing.
The uneasiness of its narrative is reflected in, and enhanced by, Villeneuve’s direction. He shapes scenes and scenarios in ways that not only defies expectations, but allows for a fairly unique cinematic language. Jóhannsson’s music is, as mentioned above, disconnected and vibrant, and throughout the movie he manages to compose a sound that is distinctly its own. It’s always impressive to see a composer do this; to make a sound that’s unequivocally connected to the movie, and impossible to displace – like Hans Zimmer did for Batman. There are scenes in Sicario that strives for an exponential rise in tension over longer periods, and it owes most of its success to Jóhannsson’s sounds. The entire sound design is done very well – gun shots echoing with brute force, dialogue, atmospheric and diegetic sounds mixed without a flaw, but it also uses silence for all that it is worth.
Emily Blunt has proven herself in more action oriented movies of late, with Looper and Edge of Tomorrow, and here she continues to impress. She has transcended the stereotypical action-starlet trope before, and although her character in Sicario is somewhat shallow and underdeveloped, she still displays the same conviction as we’ve come to expect from her. The real hero here, however, is the always amazing Benicio del Toro, who breathes life into the mysteriousness of Alejandro. One could say del Toro presents a sort-of, self-mythologization, through his performance, and as the runtime goes by, and Kate learns more about him, this is only enhanced. Brolin is Brolin (which is a good thing.)
Sicario is not Villeneuve’s best movie, but it may still very well be his most impressive. While he hasn’t written his own movies since Incendies, this is the first time where he’s worked with a debutant, and it shows. Even so, Sicario manages to be a success in more ways than one, and at the end, it is a fantastic movie.