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Sicario (2015)

DIRECTOR: Denis Villeneuve

CAST: Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin, Daniel Kaluuya, Victor Garber, Jeffrey Donovan, Jon Bernthal

REVIEW:

Sicario, the latest from Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners), is not for those seeking a couple hours of escapism from grim realities at the movie theater, nor is it an action movie.  It’s also further evidence that Villeneuve has a bleak worldview.  But for fans of gritty, down-to-earth crime dramas that deal in shades of gray and don’t shy away from unsympathetic characters or downbeat endings, Sicario may have things to offer.

FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) believes in truth, justice, and the American way.  She and her partner Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya) are honest cops who believe in the moral rectitude of what they do.  But when Kate’s anti-kidnapping task force stumbles across a house of horrors outside Phoenix, where the bodies of cartel victims are boarded up in the walls and buried under the floorboards, she volunteers to join a team targeting the men responsible.  But this next mission will test not only her resolve as a policewoman, but her moral principles.  Led by the outwardly affable Matt (Josh Brolin) and the mysterious, taciturn Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), the task force heads into Mexico to pick up a cartel bigshot and transport him back across the border.  Apart from a brief shootout at the border crossing, this goes smoothly enough, but Kate is soon to learn nothing about this mission is simple, and that her black-and-white view of right and wrong and law and order makes her out of place among her new colleagues.

Sicario deals in shades of gray, not black-and-white.  Drug lords and crooked cops still love their families, and Federal agents torture prisoners and get in bed with shady characters with common enemies.  Do the ends justify the means?  It depends on who you ask, and the movie doesn’t provide any pat, easy answers, nor does it make it easy for us by portraying the shady agents as one-sided villains.  In a more conventional movie like this, the heroine would get some big righteous victory, and there’d be a clean-cut ending where the good guys take down the bad guys.  Those things don’t happen here, not least because the line being “good guys” and “bad guys” is a little blurry.  When action comes, it’s in short brutal bursts, few and far between, and Villeneuve is not concerned with creating an adrenaline rush.  Those seeking catharsis and a conventional “happy” ending might not find the downbeat, borderline nihilistic conclusion satisfying, and it leaves one with a bit of an empty feeling when all is said and done.

Emily Blunt seems at home in any genre: romantic comedy, period drama, sci-fi, action heroine, and now gritty crime dramaAs the most morally clean-cut and straightforward character onscreen, Blunt’s Kate partly serves as an audience surrogate, our entry point into this murky ethical minefield.  She starts out idealistic and a little naive, but by the end her moral resolve has been profoundly shaken, with no catharsis to be found.  Josh Brolin’s Matt is an outwardly affable, laid-back dude who wears flip flops around the office, but this covers a steely pragmatism.  While in the grand scheme of things, Matt may be serving “the greater good”, he’s firmly of the “ends justify the means” mentality.  And if Kate is the “white” and Matt is the “gray”, then Benicio Del Toro’s Alejandro is the closest to the “black” of the lead triumvirate, a tight-lipped, impassive killer whose humanity was burned out of him by a past tragic backstory we only learn in the third act, a revelation which makes him more understandable but not necessarily more sympathetic, especially when we see that his vengeance can be every bit as ruthless as what was dealt out to him.  File Alejandro under anti-hero (at best).  Supporting parts include Daniel Kaluuya as Kate’s partner, Victor Garber as their boss, Jeffrey Donovan (almost unrecognizable from Burn Notice) as a member of Matt’s task force, and a small role for Jon Bernthal.

Whether or not one enjoys (if “enjoys” is the right word) Sicario depends on one’s cinematic tastes.  Those who go into it expecting something more conventionally heroic and action-oriented are likely to be in for disappointment, while others will praise it exactly for going against the grain.  In any case, it’s a gritty crime drama, sometimes bleak to the point of being disturbing, and breathes a dose of grim, morally ambiguous reality into a movie theater some come to to escape from that very thing.

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