War films generally have a hero. They pay lip service to the received wisdom that war is hell and people shouldn’t have to get caught up in it, but for the most part there are still clear ethical boundaries and victories. Sicario, a war movie as much as it is a cops versus criminals one,. There are no heroes, no clean wins, and just about every character eschews black and white morality, falling within one of the darker shades of grey. It’s this agonising uncertainty that makes Sicario not only the best film by master auteur Denis Villeneuve (sorry Arrival and 2049, you both came close) but also one of the very best films of the decade.
With Villeneuve’s steady hand guiding Taylor Sheridan’s script, Sicario is quality from top to bottom. Everyone’s at the top of their game, from Roger Deakins’s stunning cinematography to Johann Johannsson’s deeply unsettling score, which immediately sets the disquieting tone in the opening raid. Disoriented by the pulsing electronic sounds, we’re put in the head of Emily Blunt’s Kate Mercer, unsure of our surroundings, and never quite gaining a foothold in the world of deniable operations that she’s thrust into.
It’s in having Mercer as our central character that Sicario separates itself most clearly from other films about the war on drugs or American imperialism. Confusion and disgust should be our reaction to the acts we bear witness to throughout the film, and had the jaded and experienced CIA spook Graves (Josh Brolin) or mysterious hitman Alejandro (Benicio del Toro) been our guides, this would not have been possible. The upcoming sequel, Soldado, appears to have forgotten this lesson, which has us worried, but it’s still a Sheridan script, so we’ll certainly give it the benefit of the doubt.
America wants to see itself as the Good Guy, to believe that it is justified in unilaterally taking on the role of World Police, but Sicario shows that they’re winging it at best, and almost spitefully ruining foreign lives at worst. That we spend so much time with compromised cop and family man Silvio (Maximiliano Hernandez) is crucial. We meet his wife and son, and see how impossible life can be for someone ordinary caught up in the worst the US-Mexico frontier has to offer. When his path finally intersects with the main plot, he is murdered unceremoniously by Alejandro, bravely putting a genuinely reprehensible act in the hands of Sicario’s most obvious ‘action hero’.
Villeneuve and Sheridan are unafraid to double down on this moral murkiness, ending Alejandro’s quest for vengeance with a raid on the compound of the cartel boss that killed his family. The set piece is undeniably exciting, but before Alejandro kills the boss, he shoots his young children. There is no moral code in Sicario that hasn’t been long corrupted by the brutal reality of the world it inhabits. That something so fundamentally bleak can also be so consistently gripping is an enormous achievement, and Sicario creates some of the tensest scenes you’ll ever see on screen.
The masterpiece moment is the entire border crossing/prisoner transport sequence. From the moment you see the convoy entering Mexico – Deakins’ aerial camerawork making the line of cars appear as one single, snaking entity – there’s an unshakeable sense of dread. Villeneuve and Deakins use geography with precision and menace. Every blind spot is potentially fatal, our ‘heroes’ only able to see threats in brief snatches when small alleyways open up eyelines to parallel streets. They, and the audience, are on the back foot the entire time, a flawlessly nerveracking piece of untraditional action filmmaking that ends with a stunning amount of catharsis packed into a seconds-long firefight.
It’s a perfect build and release, the kind of sequence that every thriller director will watch and rewatch, learn from, and attempt to emulate. Villeneuve keeps complete control of every moment, driving the intensity just past the point of being unbearable, but just before you could possibly tire of it. Every moment of Sicario is laden with this sort of sweaty nervousness. The astounding beauty of Deakins’ shots reel you in to this dark, unsafe place. The moment in which a Delta Force strike team sink into the cartel’s trenches under the twilight sky is one of the most unforgettable shots in an already storied career.
It’s gorgeous and unsettling – the most picturesque descent into hell you could imagine – and the subsequent transition into alienating night-vision and infrared cameras puts the focus squarely back on to the dehumanising effects of the War on Drugs. Sicario never lets up, whether in its scathing political messages or heart in mouth fear, a start to finish masterpiece with the confidence to deny the audience quick gratification in favour of an impact far more lasting. Villeneuve and Sheridan have since gone on to make two further brilliant films each, but their collaboration remains the high point of both their filmographies.