Sicario (Lionsgate, R)

Sicario 75I expect that it will be well-liked, and it won’t do anything but further bolster Villeneuve’s impressive young career.

 

 

 

 

Sicario 500

French-Canadian Denis Villeneuve sure has shot up the list of directors to watch in the past five years. He first came to the attention of many in the film industry with Incendies in 2010, which was nominated for the Best Foreign-Language Film Oscar. His 2013 Hollywood picture Prisoners was paid much attention for being an above-average mystery/thriller, which is a type of movie it seems like everyone wants to see all the time, and yet good entries in the genre are few and far between. And then, as far as I’m concerned what is so far Villeneuve’s best movie, Enemy, the Jake Gyllenhaal doppelganger picture, was snuck out with relatively little fanfare in late 2013 and early 2014.

And now Villeneuve’s 2015 release, Sicario, is more along the lines of Prisoners—serious studio money behind it, big stars, positioned to be a hit. It’s also something of a mystery/thriller, though this time it’s more of a procedural taking place among Mexican drugs cartels (“sicario” means “hitman”) than it is a whodunit, like how Prisoners was. Still, Prisoners and Sicario share some thematic concerns, such as if rogue tactics, torture, and the like are ever acceptable means to an end (which theme was also explored to much cultural debate in Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty).

Our ostensible lead here is Kate Macer (Emily Blunt, always a welcome presence), an FBI agent who proves early in the film that she’s an agent to watch. As such, she’s recruited by a fellow named Matt Graver (Josh Brolin, same), who is the head of a special governmental task force to fight Mexican cartels. On Graver’s side is the morally questionable Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro, same; I’m seeing a trend here), who is vital to the operation for his inside knowledge and access to the cartels, but might just be the operation’s downfall all the same.

The script from usual TV writer Taylor Sheridan (Sons of Anarchy, Veronica Mars) is smart and compelling (a character on why it’s important to catch a murderous cartel kingpin: “to find him would be like discovering a vaccine”), and, as stated before, the cast is nothing short of great, but my big takeaway as I was first watching the film was that the best thing about it was its cinematography. It’s shot in an elegant, unassuming way, where individual shot compositions tend to be very pretty and in possession of key narrative information, and yet it never really calls attention to how well it’s shot. (A favorite sequence involves a traffic jam, surely the best-filmed one since Jean-Luc Godard’s 1967 film Weekend.)  As the end credits came up I was all ready to learn the name of some great new cinematographer whom I’d never noticed before, and was borderline disappointed to find that the film was shot by Roger Deakins (Skyfall, No Country for Old Men, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford… I could go on), who has long since established that he’s one of the best cinematographers of modern times. Oh well. He turns in more excellent work here.

This isn’t all to say that Sicario is flawless—I expect a good percentage of its audience to find its gender politics questionable—but it is, like Prisoners, a solid entry in a genre that doesn’t have enough good movies in it to keep audiences satisfied. I expect that it will be well-liked, and it won’t do anything but further bolster Villeneuve’s impressive young career. | Pete Timmermann

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