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Sicario's Hell in Harmony

Chris here. Available this week on DVD/Blu-ray is Denis Villeneuve's Sicario, a controlled descent into the cartel battles being waged between the Mexican and American borders. Like the ongoing war on drugs, Villeneuve's film presents a complex landscape of violence wherein rulebooks have been forsaken - and on both sides. It's a masterful piece of filmmaking (recently nominated by the PGA, ADG, and WGA), and Villeneuve has assembled an intimidating group of craftspeople working harmoniously to create a living hell.

Front and center is Emily Blunt's idealistic and by-the-book agent Kate Macer, straining composure and grasping for opportunity while in over her head. Blunt is ferociously present and flummoxed, giving as much subtlety and nuance as she has in her broader roles like The Devil Wears Prada. She's so believably rattled that you're reaching for fistfuls of cigarettes along with her. It's a performance that deserves to be right in the thick of the Best Actress conversation, even in such a deep field as this. While many have claimed her to be far too passive, her lack of control is just another element of Villeneuve's all-pervasive synthesis.

more after the jump...

Benicio Del Toro and Josh Brolin are her pilots, like fraternal twin demons using Kate as an apprentice and pawn in their unclear yet deliberate pursuit of cartel leader Fausto Alarcon. Del Toro is the master of stoic revenge, lending his trademark soulfulness to the enigmatic Alejandro. Brolin is the secret weapon, a flip-flop-wearing court jester laughing in the face of the abyss. Blunt gets to share such chemistry with small-time partner Daniel Kaluuya that his presence brightens the film with just a dash of compassion. Add in Victor Garber, Jeffrey Donovan, Jon Bernthal, and major find Maximiliano Hernandez who is currently best known for guest roles on various TV series and you've got one of the stealthiest and best ensembles of the year. That SAG missed honoring them as such is a mystery of vanishing taste.

Villeneuve retains his ability to shock with flashes of violence, much like he did in previous works Incendies and Prisoners. The rush of Sicario comes more from the constant threat of violence than the inevitable bloody shootout or confrontation. Johann Johansson's terrifying score mimics a thundering pulse, a circling helicopter, or a swooping bird of prey, all promising unescapeable menace. Compare it with Johansson's sparkling Oscar-nominated work for The Theory of Everything and see how surprisingly diverse his gifts are. His score blends in and out of a textured sound design, ripe with echoes and thuds. The sound is so precisely layered you can feel the distances between characters, the boots on the ground, or the bullets out of a gun.

And of course, the master Roger Deakins who is nominated again at the ASC (and a perpetual also-ran at the Oscars). Sicario showcases the visual genius in peak form. He bathes characters in dangerous police siren reds and blues, while he foreshadows with other pointed visual cues like a drain or distorted reflection. Deakins finds the contextually loaded in both macro and micro, with as much focus drawn towards close-up character intensities as the vast and punishing desert landscape. The image is invaded with so much darkness that characters become obscured in crucial moments while being encased in light (including the above shot, where the figures descend into literal darkness). On first viewing, his work seems deferential to the other crafts at work, but eventually reveals itself to be thoroughly entwined in the synthesis Villeneuve has shaped.

A perfect capsule of all these elements working in tandem is the boarder cross sequence to and from Juarez. Deakins captures the CIA calvade as an implacable cobra through the dingy streets as Joe Walker's editing (for which he was Eddie nominated) places as much emphasis on the dangling corpses as the effect they have on Kate. Walker gives us a shocking amount of coverage while keeping the action coherent. Johansson keeps us on edge as we plummet into Juarez, until the sound team rings out with the cacophony of sudden violence as we exit. It all culminates with this:

Villeneuve wallops with an actively challenging shot immediately following a ferociously intense sequence, a moment that has caused some critical complaints (particularly after the film's Cannes debut). The frustration felt by some is expertly intended: we want a breather after such a nerve-fraying set piece and Villeneuve denies this by making us lean forward to hear the obscured, distanced dialogue. We're disoriented by the near-stasis of the camera after such a complex arrangement of close-ups and action. The previously frame filling and controlled protagonist Kate is now off the rails and insignificant, just as she is beginning to discover her part in this pursuit compromised.

Denis Villeneuve has crafted Sicario with all the presentational elements in harmony, servicing a thematically rich vision of the war on drugs. Here's hoping he can continue the film's guild recognition with the DGA.

Sicario is available now on Blu-Ray, DVD, and streaming platforms.

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Reader Comments (8)

Sicario is amazing. The only reason I can comprehend that Benicio isn't nominated for every major statute is that people haven't seen it. Villeneuve's strengths as a director are all in elements I am not typically drawn to (slow, grim, tense, understated, violent) but I LOVE his movies.

January 7, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterMargaret

SUCH a phenomenal film and i'm so pleased by its recent awards resurgence. Regardless of how Oscar ends up, the Sound and Score of the this film was unbeatable.

January 7, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterJames G

great review chris! i'm so buying a *hardcopy* of this. fingers crossed the academy recognizes it outside of cinematography.

January 7, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterTris

If the Academy loves it like the Guilda expect acting surprises for Blunt and Del Toro.

January 7, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterMary

Sicario's last act was undoubtedly incredible, and I do generally like Villeneuve, but I can't get past having failed to be greatly interested by the first 3/4s or so of the film. I'm also not a huge fan of Blunt's performance, though it was certainly more than adequate.

January 7, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterBruno

Myabe Blunt & Del Toro hav a betta chance at the BAFTA.

The best actress field is so STACKED & both o them haven rec'v any loving from any group yet

January 7, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterClaran

great piece Chris. made me want to see the film again.

January 7, 2016 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Nothing has rattled me more in the cinema this year than Blunt's performance of the final scene. I was utterly demolished. Incredibly difficult, nuanced work.

January 9, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew

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