Monday, October 5, 2015

A Reel Review: SICARIO

In the old days, the lines between cops and robbers were always very clear; the robbers robbed, and the cops did their best to stop, or marginally disrupt the robbing. In life, and in the movies, those lines have moved around a lot, and that is painfully clear in the ongoing drug war between the United States and the Mexican Cartel. The newest crime thriller from director Denis Villeneuve, SICARIO, is a direct examination of those lines and those who have to dance around it.

FBI Agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is recruited by mysterious government official Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and his even-more mysterious partner Alejandro (Benicio del Toro) to participate in a series of illegal operations with the intent of taking down a major Mexican drug lord.

SICARIO (that’s hit-man in Spanish) begins with a literal and bloody bang for Kate, and immediately sets up the gruesome methods the cartel would use to stay in business. Despite this, Kate is fully entrenched in doing the right thing in fighting this war no matter how many times the bad guys move the line and get away with it. Her morals are at a constant battle with the fuck-it-all and grey-area methods of Graver and Alejandro, even when they do produce results and minor victories. Adding to Kate’s frustration is the great amount mystery surrounding Graver and Alejandro; who or what they are working for isn’t apparent right away, and their motivations and true goals are revealed slowly throughout the film. Kate becomes just as nervous around her cop-friends as she is around the bad guys.

While director Denis Villeneuve is playing head-games with his characters and the audience, he is also constructing a maze of a film with many twists and turns. Big revelations for characters come in big gut-punching doses, and an early side-story involving a Mexican cop (played by Maximiliano Hernandez) feels like it’s existing in its own film before its shocking purpose comes around. It’s a constant guessing game for the audience, and the maze leads to some very unexpected places.

When he’s not creating a vast atmosphere of mystery and questionable ethics, Villeneuve is lacing together a pulse-pounding and breathtaking movie of stunning action sequences. The build-ups are slow burners; often bringing us to the edge and waiting just a few seconds more, and maybe just one more before the big boom drops. Two sequences involving a night-vision midnight raid and a prisoner-transport convoy have to be seen to be believed. Villeneuve takes full advantage of sticking his camera in a helicopter and showing us the large landscapes we’re dealing with, and one has to wonder exactly how he managed to get so much property and people to cooperate with him making the film. The photography by famed cinematographer Roger Deakins is out-of-this-world. Deakins makes pure art out of every sunset, sunrise, sun-kiss, shadow and silhouette; cops and robbers have never looked better.

Emily Blunt is excellent as the FBI agent stuck between good evil. Her British accent is buried, and her inner struggles are well displayed. Josh Brolin as the shady government-man is as charming as he is quietly dangerous, and Benicio del Toro puts in excellent work as well. The rest of the cast, which includes Jeffrey Donovan, Daniel Kaluuya, and Victor Garber are all excellent.

SICARIO does a lot of exploring of the issue of doing bad things for the greater good, but in the end (after a whopper of a finale), it doesn’t bother to take a hard-stance on one side or the other. This is not a film out to make a statement, and it seems perfectly content in unabashedly presenting the ugly world we live in as it really is. It’s a film that isn’t concerned with winning the war as much as spending time looking at the battle, and it leaves plenty of food for thought by the time the credits roll…certainly great material for lecture-hall debates and late-night arguments over ethics. Beyond that, SICARIO is a masterpiece in the cops and robbers genre; expertly shot and constructed, brilliantly acted, and above all, unforgettable.


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