Sicario (Oscar Nominee 2016)

Sicario (2015)
Dir: Denis Villeneuve

This is the first film I’ve seen that really makes the ‘war on drugs’ feel like an actual war, with conflict and questionable motives abundant throughout.

An FBI agent (Emily Blunt) is recruited into an inter-agency task force in the fight against drug cartels, but she soon doubts the motives of her new boss (Josh Brolin) and their shady colleague (Benicio Del Toro).

Essentially the film raises the question of if the ends really justify the means? Showing some of the most horrific cartel activity that I am now aware is based on the reality of the situation in certain parts of Mexico, it’s truly shocking at times. What should shock more however is the handling of the response, with activities that are full of moral ambiguity and shaky reasoning, using this engrossing story and interesting characters.

Well paced, right into action at the start that sets up how bad the cartel activity is getting, from there it keeps things moving swiftly. The music by Johann Johannsson is very well composed, mostly percussive it really helps add to the oppressive tone and I felt it actively working on me, heightening the tension and making the situation I was watching feel increasingly uncomfortable. It effectively represents the feelings of Emily Blunt’s character, as she’s unsettled by what she’s seeing. I can fully understand why this score has been nominated for award recognition, sometimes the music in a film can go essentially unnoticed, at least consciously, but as I say I became quite aware of the score’s presence in certain scenes and how it made me feel on edge. Maybe not one to listen to around the house but a great composition nonetheless.

One point everyone has commented on is the beautiful cinematography by frequent Academy Award nominee Roger Deakins. There are shots and effects used in this film that I haven’t seen anything quite like before, and all are used to best effect rather than ever being for the sake of it. Lots of aerial shots, showing the wide expanses, sometimes feeling like we’re flying alongside military helicopters or surveillance drones. Many scenes had an almost documentary feel, at times the camera is kept at a distance in a less than ideal angle, close enough to see what’s going on while still not invited right into matters.

There’s a key scene that features cinematography done in the style of both night vision and thermal cameras. The night vision effect I’ve seen before though maybe not in this setting, however I’ve never seen thermal imaging like this. I would’ve loved more of it, those shots look absolutely incredible, it’s far more cinematic that you’d expect. At the right point in the film it adds an extra level of ambiguity to what you’re seeing, as objects and most especially people are reduced to shapes that give some detail but takes away almost everything else you would use as reference points such as colours, facial features, clothing. Bodies become just bodies, and almost the only thing you can use to determine who’s who is the action, so that takes the complete focus, the blanks are left for you to fill in whatever way you can make sense of. Again this is another technique that brilliantly puts the audience in the situation of our heroine, who is along for this operation but very unsure where she stands and is unsure who really is the enemy.

Great performances all round. Some have criticised how Emily Blunt’s character is sidelined, suggesting that’s not good for the female lead, however that’s completely in keeping with the story being told. The point is that her character is completely sidelined, along for the operation but kept at arm’s length despite being caught up in the midst of it. It’s not a misogynistic criticism of the writing or filmmaking in any way, it’s a key aspect of the narrative. In her performance, Blunt is brilliant, and uses all opportunities to show she’s a strong leading lady in action. Though not as full-on as ‘Edge of Tomorrow’ in terms of ass-kicking, she’s able to show the full range of her acting abilities and portrays Kate’s dilemma perfectly, adapting as her character does to the emerging situation and complex details. The male leads do get the meatier roles, most especially Benicio Del Toro, whose character I can’t talk about too much for fear of spoiling something, but he’s shady and hands-on in ways that could be foreseen yet will still shock.

Brilliantly the film makes the ‘war on drugs’ really feel like a war. One scene in particular at the border crossing reminded me in tone and tension, as well as the action, of Kathryn Bigelow’s fantastic ‘The Hurt Locker’. The film isn’t uplifting, joyful, or even optimistic, and not one I’m yearning to watch again but glad I have seen it. It’s a powerful and gripping story, superbly acted and so beautifully shot that without doubt Roger Deakins deserves an Oscar for his work. If he’s beaten again then the winner must be really spectacular because this sets such a high standard.

I’ve not yet seen any of the director’s earlier films, though on the strength of his filmmaking here I’m interested in seeing some though I’m not going to hurry to do so, as I expect they too will be tough to watch and this may take a little time to recover from. What I’m particularly interested in is Denis Villeneuve’s next film, the sequel to ‘Blade Runner’, due to go into production in a few months, that has the potential to be something really special.

‘Siciario’ is currently nominated for 3 BAFTAs for ‘Best Supporting Actor’, ‘Original Music’ and ‘Cinematography’. It is also nominated for Academy Awards in ‘Original Score’, ‘Cinematography’ and ‘Sound Editing’. It’s available now to own in all standard formats and makes a truly fascinating companion piece to the documentary ‘Cartel Land’ which I will review tomorrow. 

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7 thoughts on “Sicario (Oscar Nominee 2016)

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