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Since being nominated for an Oscar for his disturbing historical melodrama Incendies, Denis Villeneuve has become the go-to director for disconcerting, dark and complex films. Sicario builds on his psychological thrillers Prisoners and Enemy, but takes take the same level of unnerving stories and artfully mixes it into the American war on drugs.
The film follows Kate, an FBI agent (Emily Blunt), who is recruited in a murky government anti-drug task force headed by a CIA operative (Josh Brolin) and his mysterious right hand man (Benicio Del Toro). As the task force engages in militarised actions and tortures prisoners, Kate finds it difficult to justify its activities both legally and ethically.
The story is kept very basic, but despite this, it is incredibly tense and engaging. This really is a filmmaker’s film, in that it is all about the craft. The acting from the three leads is outstanding, with Blunt and Del Toro now leading Oscar contenders. As a director, Villeneuve is simply brilliant at creating set pieces and action scenes. He builds up the suspense slowly, letting the audience see all the pieces come together, then he hits you with sudden bursts of violence. All this is perfectly set to an incredibly unique and evocative film score by Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson. To say the score is moody, dark and filled with tension would be a massive understatement. However, the real star of Sicario is veteran cinematography Roger Deakins. The use of aerial shots to create awe-inspiring action scenes, filming in the most stunningly gorgeous night-vision ever put to film, and capturing the most impressive sunset in a movie since Kurosawa’s Kagemusha makes Sicario a visual feast.
This is a bold and confident film about how the American foreign policy that we have all become so familiarly with in the Middle East is also applied to Mexican drug cartels with similar results. Sicario is not without its faults. It portrayal of the Mexican city of Juárez makes it look like a war-ridden hellscape, despite the reality that its murder rate is actually lower than many American cities. However, the film’s general message that the War On Drugs has long since failed, and its more specific message that the cartels and people connected to the American militarily are benefiting from it, is not lost. More importantly, these messages are covered in one of the most beautiful and thrilling films of the year.