I didn’t see Denis Villeneuve’s last film, Prisoners, but the consensus I got from its reviews was that Villeneuve was a talented director and, while Prisoners wasn’t great, when everything fell into place for him the resulting film would be. Well, everything fell into place for Sicario and it is great.
Villeneuve and his team – cinematographer Roger Deakins and editor Joe Walker – balance an elegant structure (more on that later) with several crackerjack action sequences, an ambush during a traffic jam at a border crossing being the best. At times, some of his compositions resemble those of Michael Mann, with lots of evocative empty space: a plane’s shadow moving slowly over the desert feels more ominous than it should. But more than the action or the moodiness, Sicario is TENSE. The other shoe seems constantly ready to drop, but Villeneuve only lets it down in increments before ratcheting it back up. The first scene is tense, and it doesn’t let up. Even the last scene reminds you that bad things may be just around the corner. This constant level of tension gives Sicario an almost palpable sense of dread.
The fact this dread isn’t just unpleasant is largely due to Emily Blunt. Like Villeneuve, she’s been waiting for the right project despite being easily the best thing in her two most recent films (Edge of Tomorrow/Live Die Repeat and Into the Woods), and it’s nice she’s finally found a film as good as her performance.
But my favorite part of Sicario is its use of her character as an audience surrogate. Usually a surrogate is used for narrative reasons, so that there’s an organic reason for the characters to show or tell something to the surrogate and thus the audience (think Ellen Page in Inception), but in Sicario it’s used more for thematic reasons, especially to investigate culpability. At the beginning, Blunt is clearly frustrated with her lack of progress against the cartel, as is the audience. When offered the chance to work with the CIA and have an impact, she jumps at the chance. A nice tension develops between Blunt and Daniel Kaluuya as her partner, with her – and thus the audience – accepting the CIA’s philosophy that rules must be bent for the greater good. After all, she and the audience are seeing the results. As rules continue to get bent and increasingly get broken, Kaluuya acts as Blunt’s (and the audience’s conscience). But we’re finally about to get the cartel, which is what Blunt and the audience really want. And then, a huge left turn. Before we know it, Benicio del Toro’s spook shoots Blunt, murders the Mexican cop the film has spent a good deal of time making sympathetic, and soon thereafter executes the cartel boss’ wife and children before finally dispatching him. Thus, it’s not just Blunt who feels taken advantage of. Not only are we culpable for the very un-cinematic violence we’ve just witnessed, we’re now responsible for the humiliation of the character we identified with in the first place.
So, while I’m disgusted with the idea of a Blade Runner sequel, at least I’m interested to see what Villeneuve (and now Roger Deakins as well) will do with it.