Friday, May 27, 2016

Sicario


Sicario / Sicario. US © 2015 Sicario Movie, LLC and Lions Gate Films, Inc. P: Basil Iwanyk, Thad Luckinbill, Molly Smith. D: Denis Villeneuve. SC: Taylor Sheridan. DP: Roger Deakins – source: ARRIRAW 3.4K – digital intermediate 4K – colour – 2,39:1 – release: D-Cinema. PD: Patrice Vermette. AD: Paul D. Kelly. Set dec: Jan Pascale. SFX: Stan Blackwell. VFX: ObliqueFX. Cost: Renée April. Makeup: Donald Mowat. Hair: Jennifer Bell. Prosthetic makeup: Caroline Aquin. Corpses: Adrien Morot. M: Jóhann Jóhannsson. S: Alan Robert Murray. ED: Joe Walker. Casting: Francine Maisler.
    C: Emily Blunt (Kate Macer), Benicio Del Toro (Alejandro), Josh Brolin (Matt Graver), Victor Garber (Dave Jennings), Jon Bernthal (Ted), Daniel Kaluuya (Reggie Wayne), Jeffrey Donovan (Steve Forsing), Raoul Max Trujillo (Rafael). Loc: Albuquerque (New Mexico), El Paso (Texas), Mexico City. In English and Spanish. Helsinki premiere: 18.9.2015 Kinopalatsi, released by: Nordisk Film Theatrical Distribution Oy – DCP – MEKU K16 – 121 min
    4K DCP from Nordisk with Finnish / Swedish subtitles by Jaana Wiik / Ditte Kronström viewed at Cinema Orion, Helsinki (Jatkoaika / Extra Lease of Life), 27 May 2016

Background: the Mexican Drug War. Since the demise of the Colombian drug cartels in the 1990s the Mexican ones have been dominant. The death toll has been some 150,000 killed. Earnings from drug sales may be as high as 40 billion dollars annually.

Many quality cinemas (Maxim, Engel, Rex) are temporarily closed in Helsinki which has few cinemas left anyhow. That is why we have this summer a special feature, "an extra lease of life", for distinguished new releases which would have deserved many more weeks of showtime in theatres.

Denis Villeneuve's acclaimed Sicario, based on the screenplay by Taylor Sheridan, is a powerful account of the Mexican Drug War as seen from the American side. Against the paramilitary action of the drug cartels is organized a special task force which is not official although it is generously funded by the U. S. Government. The task force violates the law at all stages.

The outsiders, Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) and Reggie Wayne (Daniel Kaluuya) are committed to play by the book, but they are only used as an official front by the seasoned veterans of the task force, Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro). Kate and Reggie are appalled at what they see.

It turns out that Alejandro is also a veteran of the 1990s Colombian drug cartels and that the Mexican cartel boss Fausto Alarcon has had Alejandro's wife's throat cut and his daughter thrown to a vat of acid. Sicario means "a hitman". The hitman is Alejandro who as a consequence of the ingenious ruse of the task force finally confronts Alarcon and his family at dinner.

Sicario turns out to be a revenge story. Revenge is not justice. It is the opposite of justice. It means a continuing spiral of often escalating violence, which is exactly what has happened in the Mexican drug war.

In the finale Alejandro advises Kate to "move to a small town where a rule of law still exists". "This is a land of wolves now". Those are the words of the ex-gangster who is now a gangster on the U.S. Government payroll. Alejandro and Matt have turned cynical operating in a gray zone where they resort to the same methods as their adversaries, including torture and murder. I was thinking about the Twilight series where all are vampires and no counterforce remains.

The account of the surveillance methods of the special task force is amazing. They are overwhelmingly superior, but are they achieving lasting success?

Sicario has been compared with The Silence of the Lambs, and Emily Blunt in the leading role is excellent, but her role is underwritten. The power of darkness on both sides is overwhelming.

Sicario is a political thriller with a strong aspect of the horror film starting with the discovery of a secret prison with dozens of corpses of tortured and mutilated prisoners in Arizona.

The powerful, elementary score by Jóhann Jóhannsson is of the highest order. The soundscape designed by Alan Robert Murray contributes essentially to the atmosphere, especially noticably in passages of zero visibility.

Denis Villeneuve has created an original visual look to the movie together with his cinematographer Roger Deakins, the trusted DP of the Coen brothers. There is a firm center of fully photorealistic imagery and a rich variety of special approaches including sun-bleached footage, grim horror darkness, stunning aerial footage, grand epic views of Mexico, split screen surveillance footage, and a long night sequence shot in a simulation of infrared vision. The negative footage brings to mind Murnau's Nosferatu and its sense of a zone between life and death, also relevant in Sicario. We have entered a world of the undead.

The 4K digital performance is excellent. The visual base with the fine, rich, and full detail is essential for the pictorial range where also low definition is used in key sequences as a means of expression.

P.S. 29 May 2016. The War on Drugs and the Mexican Drug War are some of the most epic projects of law enforcement in history. Much has been accomplished, yet it does not look like these wars can be won.

Like everybody in my generation I know many who have died or whose life has been irrevokably ruined by drugs. Yet I tend to think more and more: "legalize it". It is a similar situation as was with Prohibition. In Finland we had prohibition simultaneously with the U.S. It was a golden age for crime and violence.

In Finland we are following an epic multi-year trial case against a former narcotics police chief who is accused of having acted as a hidden boss of illegal drug traffic and related crimes. This is a serious blow to Finns as we are proud of our low corruption level. The difference with the Mexican Drug War is that no violent crime is involved.

A book on my nighttable is the modern classic by Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson: Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty (2012). One of its key locations is the border between Arizona and Mexico - the location of Sicario. The book is about the curse of oligarchy; without abolishing a structure of oligarchy a nation is bound to fail. One can predict no good outcome for the Mexican Drug War. Only an ongoing bloodshed. A striking feature in that war is the taste for executions, "take no prisoners". In regular war there are many times more wounded in ratio to casualties.

Mexicans have protested against the presentation of Mexican authorities in Sicario, as if the combat against Mexican drug cartels were mostly or entirely an U.S. American affair. In fact Mexico is engaged in a ferocious war against the cartels, in full military mobilization.

OUR PROGRAM NOTE FROM MARK OLSEN:
OUR PROGRAM NOTE FROM MARK OLSEN:

Yhdysvaltain ja Meksikon välistä rajaa käsitellään tavallisesti kirjaimellisena asiana, rajaviivana, jolle on mahdollista rakentaa muuri. Sicariossa raja on käsitteellisempi ilmiö: pelon ja usein väkivaltaisen muodonmuutoksen vyöhyke.  Kun tekstiplanssi kertoo meille aluksi, että Meksikossa sicario tarkoittaa palkkatappajaa, pahaenteisen vaaran sävy syntyy välittömästi. Denis Villeneuven Taylor Sheridanin käsikirjoituksesta ohjaama elokuva onnistuu olemaan samanaikaisesti tiukka ja rönsyilevä, määrätietoinen ja salamyhkäinen, usein samassa kohtauksessa.
    Niin kutsuttu sota huumeita vastaan ei näyttäydy niinkään taisteluna, joka on mahdollista voittaa, kuin eksistentiaalisena miinakenttänä, jonakin mikä imee sisäänsä nekin ihmiset, joiden aikeet ovat kaikkein parhaat. Emily Bluntin, Benicio Del Toron ja Josh Brolinin juurevat pääosasuoritukset kantavat Sicariota, joka on sekä vetävä toimintaelokuva että hätkähdyttävä tutkielma maailmasta, jossa oikean ja väärän käsitteet ovat muuttuneet jokseenkin merkityksettömiksi. Enää on kyse vain eloonjäämisestä ja jatkuvasta liikkeestä eteenpäin.
    Kate Macer (Blunt) on FBI:n agentti, jonka tehtävänä on etsiä meksikolaisten huumekartellien kidnappaamia uhreja Yhdysvaltain lounaisissa osavaltioissa. Hänelle ehdotetaan vapaaehtoista tehtävää virastojen yhteisessä erikoisryhmässä; virallista toimeksiantoa ei ole mahdollista antaa. Kate hakeutuu ryhmään toivoen voivansa vaikuttaa asioihin paremmin, mutta pian käy ilmi, ettei mikään ole niin kuin hänelle on kerrottu.
    Matt Graver (Brolin) on valtion virkamies, jonka toimeksianto on hämäräperäinen. Virallisesti hän on ”neuvonantaja”, mutta tällä yllättävällä provokaattorilla tuntuu olevan runsaasti voimavaroja ja vapaat kädet toimia. Alejandro (Del Toro) esitellään ”lintukoirana”, mutta pian selviää, että hän on enemmän kuin sitä.
    Yhdysvaltain ja Meksikon välillä vapaasti liikkuvan trion tehtävänä on häiritä rahan ja huumeiden virtaa, jotta meksikolaisen kartellin ylin johto sotkeutuisi kuvioissaan ja paljastaisi itsensä.
    Sheridanin käsikirjoitus tuntuu pitävän Meksikoa ja sen kansaa tarkoituksellisesti välimatkan päässä. Meksikolaisen poliisin perhettä käsittelevät kohtaukset tuntuvat olevan mukana lähinnä rakenteen kokonaisuuden kannalta.
    Elokuvaa nostavat erityiseen arvoon ennen muuta sen osasuoritukset. Blunt, joka varasti shown Tom Cruiselta tämän omassa tähtielokuvassa Edge of Tomorrow, osoittautuu jälleen yhdeksi tämän päivän monipuolisimmista ja vakuuttavimmista näyttelijättäristä. Hän luo henkilöhahmon, joka on kuin nykyajan Uhrilampaiden Clarice Starling, tulokas maailmassa, joka on kaukana siitä, mihin hänet on koulutettu, mutta kykenevä sopeutumaan sen outoihin tapoihin.
    Del Toro ei ole sovinnainen tähti vaan muuntautumiskykyinen näyttelijöiden näyttelijä. Hän tuo tarinaan koko eksentrisen, sielukkaan ja hallitsevan läsnäolonsa. Brolin on vakuuttava agenttina, jonka tehtävänä on horjuttaa huumekartellin täydellistä koneistoa niin, että sen laakerit alkavat reistailla. Sieluttomien byrokraattien virastossa näemme Brolinin jalassa varvastossut.
    Rajavyöhykkeellä agenttimme maastureissaan juuttuvat valtaisaan ruuhkaan. Villeneuve rakentaa tästä vuoden jännittävimpiin kuuluvan takaa-ajokohtauksen, vaikka autot eivät liikahda paikaltaan. Erityisen ansiokasta on Roger Deakinsin kuvaustyö yön tummissa sävyissä. Joe Walker leikkaa saumattomasti yhteen erilaisia kuvamaailmoja, ja Jóhann Jóhannsson luo erikoisen, sykkivän musiikkimaailman.
    Elokuva Sicario sijoittuu omalle rajavyöhykkeelleen taide-elokuvan ja toimintaelokuvan välimaastoon. Missään tapauksessa se ei väitä tarjoavansa vastauksia, ja se tuntuu vihjaavan, että voi olla vaikeaa edes käsittää, mitä oikeat kysymykset saattaisivat olla. Kun Kate kysyy Alejandrolta toimeksiannon yksityiskohtia tämä vastaa arvoituksellisesti: ”Kysyt minulta, miten kello toimii. Tästä lähtien kiinnitä huomiota vain aikaan”. Kate haluaa oppia tuntemaan systeemin. Lopussa hän ymmärtää, että kaiken toimimattomuudesta ja intressien ristiriitaisuudesta johtuen mitään systeemiä ei ole olemassakaan.

– Mark Olsenin mukaan (Los Angeles Times, 17.9.2015) AA 27.5.2016

MARK OLSEN, LOS ANGELES TIMES, 17.9.2015

Review: Tension crackles across the many borders of ‘Sicario’

The border between the United States and Mexico has been interjected into the national conversation as a literal thing — a line where a wall can be built. But in the new film "Sicario," the border is more conceptual than that, a zone of anxiety and often violent transformation.

A title card at the beginning of the film announces "In Mexico, Sicario means hit man," setting an immediate tone of ominous danger. Directed by Denis Villeneuve from a script by Taylor Sheridan, the film manages to somehow be sleek and sprawling, focused and cagey at the same time, often in the same scene.

The film portrays the so-called war on drugs not as a battle to be won but as an existential minefield, something that sucks in people with even the best of intentions and turns their world inside-out. With a central trio of powerful, deeply rooted performances by Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro and Josh Brolin, the film is both a bracing action picture and a startling examination of a world in which right or wrong have become essentially irrelevant. There is only survival and forward motion.

Kate Macer (Blunt) is an FBI agent assigned to tracking down kidnapping victims of Mexican drug cartels in the American Southwest. Early on it is suggested that she volunteer — she can't be officially assigned, she must volunteer — for an interagency joint task force. She joins in hopes of making a bigger difference and quickly finds out nothing is as she was told it would be.

Matt Graver (Brolin) is a government agent of shadowy provenance, officially an "advisor," yet as a playful provocateur he seems to have vast resources at his disposal and free rein in the field. Alejandro (Del Toro) is introduced first by Graver as a "bird dog" but reveals himself to be much more than that.

Moving freely back and forth between the U.S. and Mexico, the trio are trying to disrupt the flow of money and drugs in hopes of causing higher-ups in the Mexican cartel to make a mistake and reveal themselves.

Sheridan's script seems to purposefully keep Mexico and its people at arm's length, largely an abstraction. A series of scenes involving a Mexican cop and his family feel architectural, there for reasons of structure and a passing consideration rather than organic to the storytelling.
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The film is elevated most by its performances. Blunt, who handily stole last year's Tom Cruise action vehicle "Edge of Tomorrow" from its star, again proves herself as one of the most versatile and compelling actresses today. Here she shapes her character as something of a modern-day Clarice Starling from "The Silence of the Lambs," an initiate to a world far removed from the one she trained for yet capable of adapting to its unfamiliar ways.

Though an Oscar-winner for "Traffic," a film to which "Sicario" bears some comparison, Del Toro remains less a conventional star than a transformative actor's actor, and here he brings his full eccentric, soulful, commanding presence. He credibly creates a character who can shoot someone and still seem sympathetic both to that character and the audience.

With a wicked, manic charm, Brolin's character declares his mission to be simply to "create chaos," hoping to disturb the finely honed machinery of the drug trade just enough to cause gears to slip and panicked mistakes to be made. Villenueve's economic storytelling conveys much about the character with a simple pan down to reveal Brolin sitting at a conference table in a soulless government office wearing flip-flops.

The film's most hair-raising set piece occurs when a convoy of SUVs becomes stuck in traffic at the border crossing on its return to the U.S. from a visit to Juarez, moving targets made still. Ratcheted by a tortuous tension and sense that danger is possible on all sides, it is among the best action scenes of the year — and the cars are at a standstill.

Special notice must go to cinematographer Roger Deakins, whose work on Villeneuve's previous film, "Prisoners," counted for one of his 12 Oscar nominations. Here Deakins captures the daybreak/sundown slippage between light and dark, with frequent shots of a sky transitioning from shadowy blue to a tangy orange. In one moment he perfectly frames a character walking into a tunnel backlit against the opening, effectively making a spotlight for a drawn knife that seems to be heading straight for the viewer.

A subsequent shootout seamlessly weaves between night-vision, thermal images and a conventional view, aided immeasurably by editor Joe Walker. The film's score by Jóhann Jóhannsson creates a throbbing, underlying tightness throughout.

By turns thrilling, disorienting and draining, "Sicario" exists in a border zone seemingly of its own devising between the art film and the action movie. This is definitely not a film that pretends to have any answers and suggests it's a struggle to even fully understand what the right questions might be.

Shortly after they first meet, Kate asks Alejandro for details of their assignment. "You're asking me how a watch works. For now, just keep an eye on the time," he responds enigmatically. By the end of the film, she will understand how the system works, in that its dysfunction and conflicting interests is no system at all.

Twitter: @IndieFocus

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'Sicario'
Rated: R for strong violence, grisly images and language
Running time: 2 hours and 1 minute
Playing: Limited release


JORGE MOURINHA
in THE FLICKERING WALL
Monday, October 19, 2015

SICARIO

Let us bring up again that old Eliot chestnut, "the world won't end with a bang, but with a whimper", to remind us that Sicario begins with a bang (or rather, several), as a FBI SWAT team enters an Arizona charnel house of horrors, only to end, two hours later (and this is no spoiler) with a distraught, whimpering FBI agent asking what did she just live through. We can ask the same question ourselves: what were we just hit with?

     Sicario systematically puts up a genre scaffold, a framework that lures the viewer in, and just as systematically tears it down with each new development until its nominal heroine, a door-busting, no-nonsense FBI agent named Kate Macer and playes vibrantly by Emily Blunt, is left hanging from what's left by the skin of a finger nail. (It's a metaphor. There are no cliffhangers like that in the film.) The warning this is going to happen is, actually, perfectly enunciated by Benicio del Toro about a third of the way into the film: "Nothing will make sense to your American ears, and you will question everything you do. But, in the end, you will understand." And understand we do, in Denis Villeneuve's brilliantly dark and almost hopeless drug-war thriller, synthesizing a resolutely contemporary take on one of American cinema's most hardened tropes, the twisty thriller following a hero in search of justice.

     Taylor Sheridan's script is incredibly ambitious in its attempt to dramatize the many tentacles of contemporary drug trafficking, using as his way in Ms. Blunt's character, an agent who has been on the frontline of chasing drug and people traffickers assigned to an undercover operation to neutralize a Mexican kingpin where the book everything is supposed to be done by has just gone out the window. It falters uneasily when it tries to give a voice to the Mexicans who suffer the most from the drug war - a subplot about a Mexican cop on the take is so bare-bones it's almost cringeworthy, and nearly all of the characters on the Latino side of the border are purely functional archetypes not given much thought. But Mr. Sheridan packs a mean punch when it comes to fingering the political aspects the thing takes on the American side, designing a quicksand swampland of loose morals and means-justifying-the-end ironically set in the desert lands of Arizona, Texas and Mexico.

     Roger Deakins' roving camera, a surveillance object if there ever was one, moves implacably, almost inexorably above and on the surface of this desert, where derelict cars do double duty as entrances to a hellish underworld, coyote holes into which Kate is about to fall through like Alice on the other side of the looking-glass. Down is now up, left is now right, "truth, justice and the American way" quietly devolving into an almost lawless New Wild West, as seen through the get-the-job-done credo of Kathryn Bigelow's Iraq war films and the cool, professional sheen of Michael Mann's contemporary noirs.

     Mr. Villeneuve may clearly be trespassing onto Steven Soderbergh territory here; Sicario could be a more focussed Traffic minus the mosaic plotting, but in fact there's more in common with the Canadian helmer's earlier Prisoners in the earnestness with which it approaches its tale (though, for my money, Sicario is the better film). I can't help but think of Mr. Villeneuve as an equivalent to Christopher Nolan: in an American film landscape where most everyone seems concerned with making entertainment, both directors are aiming for a scope and approach that is serious, certainly thoughtful, occasionally stern in its moralist approach, but trying to approach serious issues within an arena of genre filmmaking while refusing simple, black and white dichotomies. Sicario is notable for its refusal to sugarcoat the pill - there's a starkness, a darkness to the film, borne out of the disenchantment in its tale, of its realization there can be no escape from this vicious circle.

     Unlike the liberal thrillers of the 1970s (another reference all too present), where things were done with a view to making sure things got better, Sicario offers no easy fixes, no comforting solutions; this isn't going away and all we can do is contain it. The beating tempo editor Joe Walker creates highlights the fact that every new piece of the puzzle isn't going to fit neatly, everything is a challenge that changes the image you're trying to build. Halfway through the film's taut two-hour running time, you've lost all landmarks and are merely being buffeted back and forth by the twisting and turning plot, left as much in the dark as its heroine is, even though the director can't occasionally help tease the viewer with information hidden from her. After all, everything happens above her paygrade.

     Not everything works in Sicario, for sure; it certainly may not be the most original or illuminating take on its hot-button subject. But it's a smart, thoughtful, thought-provoking one, and above all a formally masterful feat of control and command from the director and his crew, turning the landscapes of Arizona and Mexico into a sort of parched, desolate, apocalyptic territory where nothing can survive but bloody violence. A place where the world does not end with a bang as much as it dries out with a whimper, all love and emotion wizened and worn out by weather until nothing is left but the desert. And it's a desert.

SICARIO
US, 2015, 121 minutes
Starring Emily Blunt, Benicio del Toro, Josh Brolin, Victor Garber, Jon Bernthal, Daniel Kaluuya. Directed by Denis Villeneuve; written by Taylor Sheridan; cinematography by Roger Deakins (widescreen); music by Jóhann Jóhannssón; production designer Patrice Vermette; costume designer Renée April; editor Joe Walker; produced by Basil Iwanyk, Edward R. McDonnell, Molly Smith, Trent Luckinbill and Thad Luckinbill, for Lionsgate, Black Label Media and Thunder Road Pictures.
Screened October 8th 2015, UCI El Corte Inglés 12, Lisbon, distributor press screening.


TODD MCCARTHY
THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER
CANNES REVIEW

Sicario': Cannes Review

1:31 AM PDT 5/19/2015 by Todd McCarthy

A searing and superbly made drug cartel drama TWITTER
Emily Blunt and Josh Brolin star in Denis Villeneuve's thriller about the inter-American drug trade.

The violence of the inter-American drug trade has served as the backdrop for any number of films for more than three decades, but few have been as powerful and superbly made as Sicario. Drenched in many shades of ambiguity as it dramatizes a complex U.S.-led effort to take out a major Mexican drug lord south of the border, Denis Villeneuve’s intensely physical new work is no less disturbing than his previous features Prisoners and Incendies and should be able to generate midlevel business akin to the former due to its relatable lawman (and law-woman) elements. After world premiering it in competition at the Cannes Film Festival, Lionsgate will hold back the domestic commercial release until Sept. 18.

An opening note explains that “sicario” is cartel slang for hitman, derived from a term dating to ancient Jerusalem describing hunters of Romans. Loosely used, it’s a word that could apply to almost every character in this tense tale, which is not difficult to follow even if it does demand that close attention be paid. The script by first-time screenwriter Taylor Sheridan, who played Deputy Hale on television’s Sons of Anarchy until the character was killed off at the beginning of the third season, quickly establishes an environment in which everyone is capable of killing or being killed, as well as a roster of characters for whom the labels "good guy" and "bad guy" are so relative as to essentially become irrelevant.

Effectively operating as the audience’s surrogate is Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), a first-rate FBI agent specializing in kidnapping cases, who, with a SWAT team, discovers a “house of horrors” in which dozens of rotting corpses wrapped in plastic are hidden behind the walls. The house is owned by the Diaz family, a Sonora cartel operating on both sides of the U.S./Mexican border. Kate kills one bad dude herself during the operation, which is considered so successful that she’s paged to join a secret American task force whose mission is to lop off the Diaz clan’s head.

Working in league with the Mexicans while knowing full well how compromised many of their security forces are, the Yank team welcomes its first female member (her black partner, played by Daniel Kaluuya, isn’t selected although he still goes along for part of the ride). But its on-the-ground leader, Matt (Josh Brolin), amuses himself by explaining as little as possible to Kate about what’s going on as they fly off in a private jet.

In a terrifically orchestrated set piece, the Americans cross in a huge caravan from El Paso to Ciudad Juarez, navigate through dicey neighborhoods in which naked mutilated bodies hang upside-down from an overpass, extricate their prey from prison, then get stuck in horrendous traffic near the border crossing as menacing tattooed guys with guns materialize from a nearby car.

Villeneuve and cinematographer Roger Deakins worked brilliantly together on Prisoners while employing a very dark palette of blacks, grays and deep greens. Their collaboration here is equally great in a story and setting defined by parched desert tones, cheap and impermanent buildings, and vast, pale blue skies. A preponderance of scenes involves information haves and have-nots, or situations where charatcers' motives are unclear. The blocking, framing and use of lenses accentuate these disparities in ways that expertly heighten the tension and sense of uncertainty. There are also terrific aerial shots that show the border, including portions of the American-built fence, with great vividness.

The character who’s most often, and intentionally, kept in the dark about what’s going on is Kate. Far from being a naive greenhorn, she’s already somewhat embittered (she’s divorced with no kids) and has trouble sorting out the chain of command, much less what’s expected of her. One of the big wheels in the heavily militarized operation is the world-weary Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), a native Colombian said to have formerly been a prosecutor in Mexico, who warns her that, “Nothing will make sense to your American ears. By the end, you will understand.”

Sicario offers Blunt’s character nothing in the way of military challenges that can quite rival what the actress took on last year in Edge of Tomorrow. Instead, she provides a sharply penetrating reading of a smart, resilient young woman whose desire to help out is no match for the deceptions and frustrating barriers placed in her way. Seeing how much she has to contribute — to the missions at hand, to the country, to a personal relationship — it’s sad bordering on tragic to think that she could end up as just another potential victim of an unending war that, in one way or another, poisons everyone it touches. Blunt’s performance is first-rate.

There is plenty of heavy-duty action here, probably enough to sate audiences with genre appetites. But this is not a film in which a few heavily armed gringos can just strut into Mexico and take care of the problem with a few blasts of their big guns. The macho guys and the armaments are here, all right, but Sicario very clearly makes its point about how deeply the roots of corruption are embedded in the soil of Mexico and the American Southwest. And, via Alejandro, it underlines how the problem has moved north, from Colombia up to Central America, Sonora and the American border.

In the end, Kate’s desire to build a prosecutable case is trumped by jurisdictional issues, realities on the ground and personal vendettas, which are abiding. Good and legal intentions are as nothing in this world. “This is the future, Kate,” Matt advises her, and even when she briefly seeks a little personal R&R with a macho guy in a bar (Jon Bernthal), things are not what they seem. How can an honest woman win? How can the U.S. retain a semblance of virtue in such a struggle? How can Mexico and countries further south diminish this curse? How can the contamination of drugs and blood money be reversed? Such are the questions the film acutely raises and that no one can properly answer.

Unlike Blunt’s more dimensional Kate, the male characters are so prevented from showing their true selves by the professional roles they have taken on that they must remain a bit opaque. But from a behavioral point of view, the cast is outstanding. Excellent as the real-life drug lord in the as-yet unreleased Escobar: Paradise Lost, Del Toro underplays to strong effect here as a mysterious man clearly vying to live as many lives as a cat. Brolin is most engaging as the operations chief who bounces between laid-back somnolence and gung-ho exuberance at the flick of a switch, while Victor Garber properly plays the American boss man with intriguing opaqueness.

Shot in New Mexico, the production has been superbly decked out in every department. But special note must be made of the brilliantly idiosyncratic and disturbing score by Icelandic composer Johann Johannson, which cranks up the unease of key scenes with an electronic bass wallow that then descends to seemingly impossible depths of apocalyptic dread.

Production companies: Black Label Media, Thunder Road Pictures
Cast: Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin, Victor Garber, Jon Benthal, Daniel Kaluuya, Jeffrey Donovan, Raoul Trujillo, Julio Cesar Cedrillo, Maximiliano Hernandez
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Screenwriter: Taylor Sheridan
Producers: Basil Iwanyk, Edward L. McDonnell, Molly Smith, Thad Luckinbill, Trent Luckinbill
Executive producers: John H. Starke, EricaLee, Ellen H. Schwartz
Director of photography: Roger Deakins
Production designer: Patrice Vermette
Costume designer: Renee April
Editor: Joe Walker
Music: Johann Johannson
Casting: Jo Edna Boldin, Francine Maisler

Rated R, 121 minutes

ANTHONY LANE
THE NEW YORKER

Dark Places
“Sicario.”
By Anthony Lane
09_21_15

What does Denis Villeneuve do for fun? Does he know what fun is? Hard to say, but it’s not an aspect of life that looms large for the people in his films. Sitting down to a triple bill of “Incendies” (2010), “Prisoners” (2013), and “Enemy” (2013) is like putting yourself on a diet of Kafka and late-period Thomas Hardy; Villeneuve’s characters seem to proceed on the weary assumption that fate is stacked against them. That holds true for his latest movie, “Sicario,” which barely raises its hopes and, despite being set along the border between the United States and Mexico, shows no inclination to lift its face to the sun.

Emily Blunt plays an F.B.I. agent named Kate Macer, who runs a kidnap-response squad. In the opening scene, she and her colleague Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya) lead an assault on a house in Chandler, Arizona, hunting for hostages but finding only bodies. Stacked upright inside the wall cavities, like corpses in an ancient catacomb, these are victims of the drug cartels that ply their unmerciful trade across the frontier. All that Kate can do, most of the time, is clean up the mess; far more satisfying would be a blow struck against its source, and her chance arrives when she is assigned to a new and unusual outfit. It bears no official name, but Kate finds herself moving in a mist of initials: C.I.A., D.E.A., and swat teams at the ready. Her contact is Matt (Josh Brolin), who grins a lot, wears flip-flops around the office, and can split an infinitive wide open. Asked his objective, he replies, “To dramatically overreact.”

The plan is to lure a cartel bigwig, Manuel Díaz (Bernardo Saracino), out of the shadows by transporting his brother, another ne’er-do-well, from a Mexican jail and onto U.S. soil: a quiet little affair, involving a fleet of black vehicles stiff with special forces. Villeneuve’s coup is to prepare us for a car chase and then bring the whole thing to a juddering halt. If you ever get glued into a traffic jam, in hostile territory, this, according to “Sicario,” is what you do. First, you play spot-the-hoodlum with the surrounding cars: “Red Impala, two lanes left.” “Seven o’clock, green Civic.” Then you open fire at anything you don’t like the look of—pretty much how most of us would behave at rush hour, in gridlock, if we weren’t too busy fiddling with our cup holders. As for the guys who get shot, Kate is told, “They won’t even make the paper in El Paso.”

That may be the most troubling side of “Sicario”: a growing awareness that the currency of life is being devalued. Hence the convoy’s tour of Juárez, the town where Díaz’s brother is held, and where mutilated figures are hung as warning signs from an overpass. In dumber action films, we scarcely flinch as villains are wiped out; the wiping, indeed, viewed with a boisterous crowd on a Friday night, becomes a comic spree. That is not Villeneuve’s way. The prospect of human cheapening nags at him, and the burden of his conscience is carried, in this movie, by Kate. “I want to follow some kind of process,” she says, only to learn that the rules are not just flouted but leached of meaning in the zone where the drug wars are waged. “Nothing will make sense to your American ears, and you will doubt everything we do”: those are the catechistic words of Alejandro (Benicio del Toro), who is also attached to the anti-cartel troupe. His record, his family, his current employer, and even his country of origin begin as mysteries, and gradually emerge as the film slides by. By the end, we still can’t be sure to whom, or to what cause, he answers. The code of him remains uncracked.

This is ideal for del Toro, who always gets scarier when his gestures outnumber his lines, and when his lines have you leaning forward to listen. He dramatically underreacts. Late one night, faced with busloads of Mexican immigrants held by the U.S. authorities and patiently biding their time, Alejandro squats down and softly questions them in Spanish, hunting for whispers of information. Even his violence has a strange economy: he torments one suspect not by punching him but simply by wetting a finger and worming it deep into the poor fellow’s ear. Likewise, although we don’t actually witness what he does to Díaz’s brother, in an interrogation room, the ease with which del Toro comes in swinging a full, multi-gallon bottle of water, taken from the office cooler, supplies all the menace we require, and it acts as a foil to the more genial toughness of Brolin’s Matt.

The only hitch here is Emily Blunt. The task of her character is to protest and to put questions, trying to work out why she was asked to string along, and the truth, once revealed, is no big deal. That isn’t enough, I think, for an actress who seems constitutionally wiser than the folks around her. In her low-lidded gaze, and in the permanent rumor of a smile on her lips, we catch hints of someone determined to be more amused than bored by the world, though never so crass as to be wowed. Nobody writes leading roles for such an actress any more, in the way that Ben Hecht (with help from Dorothy Parker, Moss Hart, and others) wrote “Nothing Sacred” for Carole Lombard; that’s why the best of Blunt resides in her bit parts, in “The Devil Wears Prada” and “Charlie Wilson’s War,” and in the astonishing scene from “The Adjustment Bureau,” in the bathroom of the Waldorf-Astoria, in which she goes from meeting Matt Damon to smooching him in three minutes and twenty seconds. Who else could do that and get us to believe it? What do you do with a performer who makes a kiss look as easy as a laugh, and vice versa?

What you don’t do is give her a gun, erase the bloom from her cheeks, and command her, at all costs, to keep a straight and stony face. Yet that is what Blunt has undergone of late, first in “Edge of Tomorrow” and now in the dauntingly humorless “Sicario.” She makes a decent action heroine, never less than pained and strained, but for her it’s like playing a single octave on the piano. There is one sequence in which Kate drinks, dances, and lets her hair down, but it soon turns predictably sour, as though she were being penalized for flirting with the mere possibility of joy—a serious faux pas in a place that Alejandro calls a “land of wolves.” Orson Welles covered the same land, on the same porous border, in “Touch of Evil,” and the stink of corruption that rose from it was as rank as that of “Sicario”; yet he also found space for bitter comedy and even amorous regret, whereas Villeneuve dares not release his characters from their chains. Consider Silvio (Maximiliano Hernández), a Mexican citizen whose fortunes we follow from the start. He talks to his young son, whom he clearly loves, and promises to play soccer with him soon, but we realize that Silvio has something to contribute to the plot, and we fear—as Villeneuve invariably wants us to fear—the worst. Do father and son ever get to play that game together? You guess.

If “Sicario” does not collapse under its own grimness, that is because of the pulse: the care with which Villeneuve keeps the story beating, like a drum, as he steadies himself for the next set piece. I especially liked the nocturnal raid on a tunnel, used by the cartels to ferry narcotics and assailed by Matt, Alejandro, and a bunch of U.S. operatives, with Kate and Reggie, her friend from the F.B.I., bringing up the rear. Aside from the pops and blasts of weaponry (described by Matt as “the Fourth of July on steroids”), the scene is so confoundingly dark that, in a near-parody of Villeneuve’s style, we observe it through not one but two forms of night vision: a thermal blur of monochrome, plus a grainy green-and-white. The director of photography is Roger Deakins, who both refines and redeems “Sicario” by unearthing a kind of difficult beauty in the most unpromising of locations and in the most desperate of straits. The landscape over which Kate flies, at the outset of her mission, could be an alien planet, with its swirling patterns of rock, were it not for the tiny shadow of the airplane passing across them like a bug. “Want to see something cool?” a member of the team asks, before taking her up on a roof, under an infuriated sky, and pointing out the explosions and crackles of gunfire that signal the fall of night in Juárez. Best of all, as the American forces walk toward that fateful tunnel, the day is dying behind them, and they are silhouetted against its fiery orange and rose. They wear high-tech helmets, with cameras mounted on them, yet we somehow expect to see cowboy hats and the nodding head of a horse. At such moments, “Sicario” feels like one of the last Westerns: tense, forbidding, and trapped on the fringes of the nation, in a battle that cannot be won. ♦

A. O. SCOTT
THE NEW YORK TIMES
Review: ‘Sicario’ Digs Into the Depths of Drug Cartel Violence
    Directed by Denis Villeneuve Action, Crime, Drama, Mystery, Thriller R 2h 1m
SEPT. 17, 2015

Photo
Emily Blunt plays an F.B.I. agent in “Sicario,” Denis Villeneuve’s movie about drug violence. Credit Richard Foreman, Jr./Lionsgate

Plenty of directors make violent movies. Denis Villeneuve makes movies about violence, which is not quite the same thing. A Canadian filmmaker equally comfortable in French and English, he is especially interested in preludes and aftermaths, in the tense moments before the eruption of violence and in the shock and confusion that follow. His framing, cutting and sound design evoke the feelings that motivate and arise from the shedding of blood: rage, grief, steely resolve and wild panic.

Mr. Villeneuve’s 2009 feature, “Polytechnique,” was the almost unbearably meticulous reconstruction of an actual mass shooting at a Montreal university. He followed it with “Incendies,” a grim family chronicle set mainly in a thinly fictionalized Lebanon during that country’s long civil war. “Sicario,” his new movie, visits a different war zone: the United States-Mexico border, where the murderous business practices of the Mexican drug cartels threaten to bleed across the Rio Grande.

The dry, menacing scenery surveyed in “Sicario” is real, of course, as are some of the aspects of its harrowing story. But the desert and the drug war — a landscape evoking old westerns populated with a new cast of outlaws and would-be sheriffs — has also become fertile pop-cultural ground. We know the territory, thematic and geographic, from “No Country for Old Men” and “Breaking Bad,” from “The Counselor” and “Traffic” and even “Weeds.”

Mr. Villeneuve, aided by Taylor Sheridan’s lean script, Roger Deakins’s parched cinematography and Johann Johannsson’s slow-moving heart attack of a score, respects the imperatives of genre while trying to avoid the usual clichés. It’s not easy, and he doesn’t entirely succeed. But he’s also trying to scramble some of the usual codes, and to paint a morally complicated picture instead of restaging a morality play.

“Sicario” tells the story of an ambitious operation undertaken by an alphabet soup of American law enforcement agencies against top-ranking members of the Sonora cartel. The action is viewed mostly through the eyes of Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), an F.B.I. agent who is brought into the plan for reasons she doesn’t quite understand. Nor is she given much information about what’s going on once she’s on board.

Kate’s expertise is tactical. She and her partner, Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya), are SWAT-team specialists who, in the movie’s first scene, raid a house whose walls are filled with corpses, anonymous victims of the cartel who died horrible deaths before being sealed between layers of drywall. Two agents died in the raid, and payback is among Kate’s motives. She wants to get the guys responsible for killing her co-workers, she tells the guys responsible for the new task force.

It’s not so simple, though. Her boss (Victor Garber) hands her over to a jaunty supervisor, Matt (Josh Brolin), whose organizational affiliations are unclear. (D.O.D.? C.I.A.? Something else? Are flip-flops part of the uniform?) Matt is all smiles, treating possibly extralegal combat missions like pickup basketball games and answering Kate’s earnest inquiries with mock-sheepish good humor. His closest colleague — minion? supervisor? consultant? evil twin? — is a more somber fellow known as Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), haloed in sorrow and capable of extreme acts of brutality.

Kate and Reggie are appalled to discover that their new assignment is being carried out with almost complete disregard for national sovereignty, the rule of law or basic human decency. As Alejandro suggests late in the film, there are no good guys and bad guys in this world, only packs of wolves competing for territory and dominance. “Sicario” suggests that United States government authorities are one such pack, acting not in the name of justice or security but rather of expediency and order. The idea that the war on drugs might be won is not something anyone takes seriously. The only question is how the forces are aligned and who is enforcing the rules of engagement.

Recent Mexican films — including fictional features like Amat Escalante’s “Heli” and a number of brave and powerful documentaries — have examined how the drug trade and the power of the cartels have affected all aspects of life there. A subplot in “Sicario” concerning a Sonoran police officer and his family gestures in that direction, yet the film stays mostly in shallow action-thriller waters. Ms. Blunt is impressively glum and intense, but Kate is a bit of a blank, on hand as a filter through which the audience can scrutinize Matt and Alejandro, who are far more intriguing characters.

Though maybe not quite intriguing enough. Mr. Villeneuve conjures an atmosphere of menace and pervasive cruelty, but after a while “Sicario” starts to feel too easy, less an exploration than an exploitation of the moral ambiguities of the drug war. We glimpse mutilated bodies hanging from bridges, hear stabbings and shootings just out of sight and study the face of a man whose family is being killed in front of him. But after a while these sounds and images start to feel like expressions of technique, and they become at once numbing and sensational, and instead of a movie about violence we’re watching another violent movie, after all.

“Sicario” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). Grave bodily harm, threatened and enacted.
Sicario
   Director Denis Villeneuve
    Writer Taylor Sheridan
    Stars Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, Benicio Del Toro, Jon Bernthal, Victor Garber
    Rating R
    Running Time 2h 1m
    Genres Action, Crime, Drama, Mystery, Thriller
    Movie data powered by IMDb.com
    Last updated: Mar 30, 2016

A version of this review appears in print on September 18, 2015, on page C11 of the New York edition with the headline: A Border Permeated by Brutality. Order Reprints| Today's Paper|Subscribe

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