TIFF 2015 Review | ‘Sicario’ Borders on Greatness

Director Denis Villeneuve is a master of grim determination. This is a compliment, because although it is one thing to be gritty, it is another thing to be all willy-nilly about it. Denis Villeneuve’s films may be dark and brooding but he and his characters are all highly motivated and they get a lot accomplished. It’s easy to admire someone for simply getting out of bed in the morning when the only thing on their “to do” list each day is “moral quagmire.”

Villeneuve’s latest sojourn into absolute desolation, Sicario, stars Emily Blunt as FBI Agent Kate Macy, an ass-kicker who gets drafted into a special joint task force on their mission to stop a Mexican cartel. Kate is all for that – it’s even kind of her “thing” – until she discovers that there is something rotten in the state of plausible deniability. Her superior, Matt (Josh Brolin), won’t even explain their objectives and Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), some sort of Columbian liaison seems to be on a personal mission of revenge.

Matt and Alejandro treat Kate with kid gloves, to the point of gross condescension. It’s a skilled frustration tactic that sweeps the audience quickly to her side. We have seen her in action, we are confident in her abilities, and watching these smug and elusive men ignore her is beyond frustrating. An underestimated protagonist is a beloved protagonist, for who hasn’t felt under-appreciated their work, and who hasn’t yearned to prove themselves to one naysayer or another?

And yet as Kate gets dragged from one clandestine operation after another, objecting to Matt and Alejandro’s criminal abuse of authority and nearly getting killed on multiple occasions, Sicario reveals itself to be less about sympathy and more about pragmatism. We love Kate only because we started our journey with Kate, and we sympathize with her fury and plight. But we also begin to wonder – perhaps at the cost of our own souls – whether Matt and Alejandro aren’t the real heroes here, and whether Kate really is a petulant child who refuses to understand the way the world really works. 

Meanwhile, director Denis Villeneuve presents Sicario with all the immediacy of a video game, plopping viewers over the shoulder in incredible firefights, establishing a hopeless geography of danger and corruption. Working again with director of photography Roger Deakins, Villeneuve manages to make the ugly beautiful and the mundane quite fascinating, for it is in the many small moments between the overt drama that the characters reveal themselves, and that the filmmakers set the stage for blood.

It’s a thrilling drama, Sicario, and damn near a great picture. But if anything it does its job too well. If you are convinced that Kate is the hero then Sicario is a horrifying rabbit hole of suspense and frustration. If, on the other hand, you come around to Matt and Alejandro’s side, you may begin to wonder why Kate even needs to be here during the second half of the movie, and why Villeneuve dedicates so much of the finale to her powerless outrage. It is at these times that Sicario seems to be looking down at us as well, patting us on the head and saying “There there, go home now, the wolves are protecting the hen house. Be satisfied.”

Then again, in a despicable way… satisfied we are.

Images via LionsGate

William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and watch him on the weekly YouTube series Most Craved and What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.

 

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