by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Wednesday September 23, 2015

Emily Blunt stars in 'Sicario'
Emily Blunt stars in 'Sicario'  (Source:Lionsgate)

"The border is just another line to cross." That's the tag line for "Sicario," the new movie from director Denis Villeneuve, the man behind the 2010 film "Incendies" and the less-successful (but still striking) 2013 project "Enemy."

This is a film full of lines that are moved, stretched, breached, and erased. Trying to color within those fluctuating boundaries is by-the-book FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) who impresses Bureau higher-ups with her ability. Expecting to find and rescue hostages in a raid on a house in a small Arizona town where drug cartel bosses are operating, Kate and her colleagues make a gruesome discovery so hideous and barbaric that she's soon pulled in by other agencies who operate by different guidelines... or, possibly, by next to no guidelines at all.

Though morally on the fence as she's dragged deeper into a gray zone in the labyrinthine drug wars, Kate does admit that the guys she's now partnering with -- smiling, jocular Matt (Josh Brolin) and somber, imposing Alejandro (Benicio del Toro), a pair of "Department of Defense consultants" -- are actually putting a dent in the international drug trade and the carnage it generates. It's an argument she presents to her disapproving partner Reg (Daniel Kaluuya), who is a lawyer as well as field agent and, as such, understands which rules they are breaking and which ones they are only barely sticking to in letter, if not in spirit.

Not that Kate believes for a moment that Matt and Alejandro are actually "consultants." She thinks they're CIA, and struggles with what it means that the Agency is getting into pitch-black ops South of the border. She also has a problem with the way Matt and Alejandro are keeping her and Reg on a "need to know" basis, with only hints and crumbs of information to go on. Their first joint mission is to retrieve a mysterious man from a safe house in Juarez, a dangerous border town just across the border from El Paso; the Mexican city is nothing less than a war zone, with firearms popping continuously in the distance and naked, mutilated bodies left dangling from highway overpasses. This, her new compatriots explain forcefully, "is what happens when they" -- drug lords and their gangs -- "dig in." It's a form of rot that threatens to seep into the United States.

The word "scary," we learn at the film's very start, comes from Biblical times and is used as slang in Mexico for "hit man." But is the mystery man the target? Or is he just collateral damage? And who, exactly, is the hit man Kate should be looking for? Is it Silvio (Maximiliano Hernndez), a Mexican state police officer we see at home in scenes seemingly disconnected from the rest of the movie? (One of Matt's first pearls of wisdom is that Mexican cops "aren't always the good guys.") Or is it an officer of the law on the American side of the border, such as Ted (Jon Bernthal), the good looking guy who picks Kate up in a bar? Whoever he is, and whoever his objective, when can we expect him to strike?

The film relies on Kate being out of her element and we, in the audience, equally confused. The film's virtuoso production further distracts us from the essential fact that the story is a hard shell over what turns out not to be a hard kernel of moral conflict, but a toxic and reactionary bit of puffery. Up close, in the theater, everything about "Sicario" -- from Jhann Jhannsson 's throbbing, growling score to Roger Deakins' reliably gorgeous cinematography to Joe Walker's smoothly assembled editing -- compels and unsettles. From a distance, it's obvious that this feature is a shell game that functions on misdirection. Taylor Sheridan's screenplay only makes half an effort to fool us, but succeeds in an all-out plan to intrigue.

Emily Blount is flat-out fantastic (as, indeed, she was in the critically overlooked sci-fi thrill ride "Edge of Tomorrow"). She might finally get the recognition she deserves for her work here, even though she finds herself treading a path blazed by Jodi Foster more than twenty tears ago in "Silence of the Lambs," as the lone female among a clutch of testosterone-sweating men, her skills their equal and her clear-eyed gaze holding their lapses and misdeeds to account. (Factor in the passage of time and concomitant erosion in civic values that afflicts our culture, and Blunt really could be the 2015 version of Clarice Starling.) As if in homage, Demme-like touches dot the film; but it's Fincher's fingerprints, dark and oily, that are far more noticeable all over the production.

There are flaws here, from visual cliches (a car speeding into an approaching storm; you just know that character is racing toward trouble) to mass-market triteness (a soldier viewed through night vision goggles, gesturing to his men with the stylized grace of a figure in a video game) to a trivializing exchange that boils the entire fiasco of the drug war down to a jeremiad that blames "twenty percent of the population" for using the cartels' wares (no critical thinking there on whether or not the very prosecution of the war on drugs is a good idea, or could possibly have produced any other result).

Still, this is a film that asks us -- and then forces us -- to face hard questions with no easy moral answers at the ready. This alone makes "Sicario" refreshing, even as the landscape against which the picture takes place is thirsty and desolate -- much like the drained psyches of the men Kay observes from the vantage of her troubled working relationship with them. Del Toro's Alejandro is a hollow, brutish man who sparks to malevolent life when he's literally leaning on a heavy to coax, or crush, intel out of him; Brolin's Matt is only superficially a laid-back jokester. Underneath, he's awash with an acidic rage. The big boss of the cartel, when we finally meet him, presents the surface image of a contented family man, but the vile morass just the other side of his gaze is the very thing that Matt and Alejandro have fallen into by gazing back for too long.

It's here that Kate risks everything and, as our surrogate for the rest of us, so does our nation as a whole. If we give up decency to fight the indecent, what do we have left to fight for? It's a question the film gestures at rather than addresses, but even that gesture sends (or ought to send) chills right through you.



Kate Macer :: Emily Blunt
Alejandro :: Benicio Del Toro
Matt :: Josh Brolin
Jennings :: Victor Garber
Ted :: Jon Bernthal
Reggie :: Daniel Kaluuya
Steve Forsing :: Jeffrey Donovan
Rafael :: Raoul Trujillo
Fausto Alarcon :: Julio Cedillo
Manuel Diaz :: Bernardo Saracino


Director :: Denis Villeneuve
Screenwriter :: Taylor Sheridan
Producer :: Basil Iwanyk
Producer :: Edward McDonnell
Producer :: Molly Smith
Producer :: Thad Luckinbill
Producer :: Trent Luckinbill
Cinematographer :: Roger Deakins
Film Editor :: Joe Walker
Original Music :: Jóhann Jóhannsson
Production Design :: Patrice Vermette
Costume Designer :: Renée April


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Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.