The best thing going in Sicario is Roger Deakins’ masterful use of light. Deakins is such a high-level artist in his field that he can transform the most mundane and muddled of scripts into top-flight entertainments. He uses his consummate skills to make Sicario a beautifully murky, tension filled action-crime-thriller and elevates the weakly written material into something much better. It’s this persistent conflict between top-shelf technique by all involved smashing into a poor script that keeps Sicario in some strange state, locked in-between a serious triste on the War on Drugs and a popcorn entertainment.
I lean harder towards thinking of this as a popcorn entertainment with A-level craftsmanship. The longer the film goes on, the more director Denis Villeneuve’s technique brings more attention to itself. He never coheres the script into a whole, but he makes individual set pieces thrilling and memorable, palpable with enough tension that a trip wire in your mind could cause chaos to ensue for the characters on the screen. Shame that so much feels more like Grand Guignol horror sutured to escalations of violence and existential terror in the face of an unwinnable war.
If the film dips into overwrought, although spectacular, artistry, your senses never entirely hit mass saturation due to a series of anchoring performances that try to keep the film grounded even as it dips into melodramatics. Emily Blunt’s character is an improbable creation on the page, seemingly too naïve for the work she’s dedicated her life to and consistently finding herself in situations which strain credulity, is given more depth by the actress’ great work. Just as solid is Josh Brolin as a government contractor who recruits her for a shadowy mission and Daniel Kaluuya as her partner, both of whom are forced to deliver trite dialog like it is brand new information. They both succeed.
Towering above all, or maybe it’s quietly lurking in the shadows is Benicio del Toro’s supporting work. He’s withheld for much of the film, keeping a low profile and stalking in the background with only a few brief moments of violent outbursts to reveal the depths of his true character. He’s starred in several movies about cartels and the drug wars before, so he’s clearly in familiar terrain but he never repeats his work in Traffic or Savages here. The final scenes, which transition from Blunt’s heroine to his morally questionable avenger, are the crescendos as we submerge into the despair and horror that Sicario has merely flirted with thanks to del Toro’s impressively cruel work.
In the end, Sicario reveals itself as yet another violent film and not a film about violence. The script holds our hand too much, stymying any message and deeply felt atmospherics on display. Perhaps we should take a clue from the script and best not ask too many questions, just sit back and enjoy the ride. Sicario isn’t about moral complexity, it’s about Roger Deakin’s gorgeously twisted cinematography lingering over Emily Blunt’s facial reactions and exquisitely photographed gun battles between undercover agents and the cartel’s soldiers.