Once the intensity of SICARIO wears off, it becomes apparent that the plot is actually very simplistic. It’s basically about the United States striking back at a drug cartel. But where SICARIO succeeds is in how the plot unfolds. The film depicts truly disturbing and intense moments, and it is filled with breathtaking cinematography and aerial shots that add a deeply haunting aspect to this story. The premise of SICARIO may be simple, but it is surrounded by layers of excellence in the form of direction (Denis Villeneuve) acting, cinematography (Roger Deakins), and a soundtrack that really elevate the film.
The film follows FBI Agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), who joins a Department of Justice task force following a raid that kills some of her fellow agents. The task force, led by Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), is tasked with apprehending a cartel lieutenant. Once part of the task force, Kate finds herself manipulated by her team (including the mysterious Alejandro, played by Benecio del Toro) and questioning the legality of what she is involved in.
The acting in SICARIO is really great, without a single weak link in the cast. Emily Blunt plays Kate with the perfect amount of shock and horror. Not only does she accurately depict being completely in over her head, but we see her break down as the film progresses. In many ways, Blunt is the conduit for the audience – she is the only main character that doesn’t live in the morally grey world she finds herself in. Josh Brolin plays Matt with just the right amount of levity – he’s a flip-flop wearing, sarcastic guy who has clearly been involved in fighting the drug trade for a long time. He’s tough as nails when the situation calls for it, but he’s got a charismatic presence that makes him endearing despite his shadiness.
But the real standout is Benecio del Toro. As the film progresses, we learn more about the mysterious Alejandro. His backstory unfolds at just the right moments, and del Toro does a wonderful job of playing his character as both sympathetic and also villainous. There’s an incredible depth to his character, and an intensity that only increases as the film continues. The climax of the film showcases the extent Alejandro will go to achieve his goals – and it is as shocking as it is riveting. This role is del Toro at his absolute best.
SICARIO is intense, and there is no warning for how brutal the film gets. What SICARIO does right is not rely on extended action sequences or bloody moments. Instead, the film ramps up the tension and punctuates those moments with brief bits of violence. In one sequence, the task force journeys into Juarez, Mexico to take custody of a prisoner. The extended sequence is filled with tension from the start – with the idea that violence could happen at any moment. The buildup is incredible – and when it finally does strike, it’s not sudden. We see it unfolding slowly, and yet the quick burst of violence that results is still rather shocking.
There’s also a scene in the film that requires the characters to use night vision goggles. At this point in the film, the camera switches to thermal imaging – making everything appear washed out in grey and white. It’s completely unnerving to watch. There’s a complete lack of dialogue, just a creeping dread as the characters slowly make their way to their target. It’s another moment where the buildup is so intense, even though nothing actually happens. But with the camera adopting the view of night vision goggles, it puts the audience right in the action and feels incredibly realistic. Once color returns to the film and the bullets start flying, the tension actually feels lighter.
The film bounces back and forth between the United States and Mexico, but I found that the highlights of the film were the scenes in Mexico. The depiction of Juarez was incredibly depressing. The idea of a city so filled with crime and fear – it’s almost unfathomable. When the task force travels from the United States into Mexico by car, you see the changes almost immediately. The roads are horribly maintained, the police presence looks more like a military, and mutilated bodies are hung by the cartels for the public to see. It’s a depiction that makes the stomach do somersaults. The idea that people can live their lives in this kind of hell is extraordinary, and incredibly sad.
SICARIO is a film that sits heavily on the mind long after it has ended. It’s a grimy film, and it is an uncomfortable film. It showcases some of the realities of the ongoing drug war, and it does so in a dark, brutal fashion. It is a film that is, quite simply, about revenge. But while the premise may be overly simplistic, the rest of the film is anything but.