Sicario reaction: Cannes 2015

One of the big-hitters of the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, Denis Villeneuve’s latest stars Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin and Emily Blunt. Here’s Jamie Graham’s reaction…

A new film by Denis Villeneuve (Incendies, Prisoners, Enemy) is something to anticipate and Sicario fulfils expectations. A drug-trade thriller that hops between the US and Mexico, between character study and suspense-fuelled actioner, and between personal cost and systemic concerns, it’s peopled by soul-stained protagonists wading in grisly violence. Most ‘morally murky thrillers’ seem antiseptic in comparison.

Emily Blunt is Kate Macer, an FBI field agent who’s drafted into an inter-agency task force to tackle the war on drugs. Her immediate boss is Josh Brolin’s Matt Graver, charismatic and chilled in sandals yet reeking of violence, and Graver’s right-hand man is the silent ‘sicario’ (assassin) of the title – Benicio Del Toro’s Alejandro, a former Mexican prosecutor with ties to Colombia. Kate suspects both men are aligned to the CIA. Only in this world of dust and blood, identities are opaque, allegiances distorted and motives oblique.

The plot, for a film so thick with mystery, is relatively streamlined, boiling down to a familiar working-up-the-chain-of-command procedural thriller as the arrest (and torture) of one big bad leads to the ensnaring of the next, even bigger bad, and finally a sighting of the ‘jefe’. Scriptwriter Taylor Sheridan is more interested in the covert agendas that propel these takedowns, and the objective beyond them – things we don’t learn until the final scenes. Villeneuve, meanwhile, is all about measuring the debasement of his characters and whisking up a clogged atmosphere of disgust, terror and moral bankruptcy.

Shot in widescreen by ace DoP Roger Deakins (Skyfall, most of the Coens’ oeuvre), the desertscapes, sprawling towns and close-ups of faces sweating in cars all possess a startlingly bleak beauty, while throat-tightening set-pieces punctuate the action with pleasing regularity. They are, for the most part, supremely orchestrated, from an FBI raid on an Arizonan home that reveals an abattoir interior to make Leatherface gag, to a couple of brutal one-on-one scraps, to a sudden shootout in congested traffic. Less thrilling is an ambush located in illegal border tunnels, the implementation of night vision and thermal imaging prescribing a shoot-em-up videogame vibe to the visuals.

Blunt offers a solid performance as the greenhorn participant in this nightmare netherworld, though her character is somewhat short changed – she’s far from passive but she does act as the viewer’s eyes and moral compass, too often agog at what she sees. Brolin is, essentially, Brolin, at once charming and commanding, but he does it so well you wouldn’t have it any other way. And a taciturn Del Toro steals the show; soul scooped out, heart in a carapace, his Alejandro is both brutal and brutalised.

Sicario is not a modern masterpiece to join the ranks of, say, Zodiac or Zero Dark Thirty, but it is expertly crafted, fearlessly questioning and shockingly grim. Few US thrillers dare to be so adult.

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