Director: Dennis Villeneuve
Starring: Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin, and Jon Bernthal
We love crime stories in this world of ours. In print and in visual media, we love a good crime yarn that puts us into a world that the vast majority of the audience will never take part in. Why we do so is a big question, one I’m not completely comfortable in answering. Maybe it’s the base level of seeing people doing the shit we wish we could do. Make money anyway possible and enact violence on those that do us wrong. Some movies make the life seem sexy and others put a mirror up to the life to show us how ugly it really is. But even in the stories that make the point that this life is horrible, like Breaking Bad, idiots will still look at it in positive way because it’s badass.
For a long time, we were fascinated as a people by the Italian Mafia, who dominated things for the longest time with hits like The Godfather and The Untouchables to The Sopranos. For a while in the 2000’s, the Irish mob took attention away with the story of Whitey Bulger infusing those stories with a unique hook into the world like The Departed. There’s always gonna be stories set in the world of crime and gangsters that aren’t exactly in the popular mob. There’s always gonna be a Scarface or a Justified to give the world more options. But now it seems like the popular organization is gonna shift to the drug cartels of Central and Southern America. And that shift can be seen in media just this weekend alone, with the Irish Mob seemingly taking a swan song with a biopic about Whitey Bulger in Black Mass and the cartels getting an awards worthy drama in Sicario. And if you wanna see what crime oriented TV show is the most popular, the cartels have taken that banner with Narcos. Now, I haven’t seen Black Mass. And while I’ve heard good things, Sicario has gotten all the critical love. Having seen that, I can say that love is well received.
Sicario is helmed by Dennis Villeneuve, the Canadian director of 2013’s well received Prisoners. Now, with a few flicks in his pocket, a tone has emerged with his work. Very serious, very dour and very ugly with some bursts of excitement and humanity. When it came out that he was directing a Cartel flick, I got very excited. Obviously it wasn’t gonna be a Goodfellas type descent into that world, but a more grim and unflinching look into this world. And I’m totally into that as the world of the Cartels is horrific. Throw into the mix cinematographer Roger Deakins (Skyfall, No Country For Old Men) and I’m right close about to burst at the seams. Throw a cast together that has Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin and Benecio Del Toro? I was sold from the jump.
The main character of the piece is sold to us as Emily Blunt, an Arizona tactical team leader who is recruited by mysterious Government Agent Josh Brolin to join a task force whose aim it is to take out a specific Cartel responsible for a house filled with corpses in Arizona. But on the way to the Jet that’s supposed to take them to Texas, she meets Del Toro as a mysterious aid and finds out the destination is Mexico itself. So Blunt is our entry character, the one learning as we do what the situation is like in Cartel occupied Mexico and the way the US deals with it. But as the movie moves on, we realize she isn’t necessarily the sole main character. Benecio is to the side at the beginning, but takes more and more prominence as we head for the ending and realize his story is what kickstarted this whole thing.
The story in and of itself is not a completely unique take on the Cartels. There’s the shady government agents, corrupt cops and unflinching violence. But it’s how the story is told that makes this a fresh piece of cinema. Being in the shoes of Blunt, we grow to realize how vast and horrible and morally ambiguous this war is. From her shoes, the world is too massive and scary to really make an impact in any by the book way. By not being put in the shoes of a Cartel member who is being hunted by the cops, we never feel any humanity or warmth for them. And it has itself a subversive streak in it by casting Blunt. A woman is usually not the character in this kind of movie, so there’s that subversion. But as the movie progresses, we get to realize that she wasn’t picked because she’s a woman. This was no purposeful shaking of the accepted norms from Brolin. No, she was just the best option available for the goals he has. She’s not the hero who changes things, not the best cop in the world. No, she’s a grunt who grows to realize how little she is impactful in the world. It’s a remarkably bleak and cynical movie that pulls no punches in this world.
The cast is just absolutely perfect. Emily Blunt can seemingly do no wrong, perfectly playing the role of a woman who isn’t trying to be some feminist icon. She does her job and wants to do the right thing but has to learn that things are really just not that simple on any impactful level. She goes from competent cop to in over her head perfectly. It’s remarkable and different from anything she’s done before. Josh Brolin comes back to remind us yet again how great he is, after making a few years of bad film choices. But between this and Inherent Vice last year, he shouldn’t be slept on. He is great as the cocksure, cynical and super competent morally ambiguous agent. But the star of the damn thing is Benecio Del Toro, doing arguably career best work here. He makes a return to the Mexican drug trade, following up his Award winning turn in Traffic. Here he plays much more low key and menacing than that guy, a man well versed in the horrors of this world and capable of anything if it needs to be done. He is simultaneously heroic and horrifying. It’s amazing work from a man who never gets the credit as a brilliant actor that he deserves. In an ideal world, he gets nominated for Best Supporting Actor or even Best Actor. And the rest of the cast to fill up this world are great, non flashy actors making the world feel real. Villeneuve does good work with casting yet again.
The movie is a marvel on a story telling level, but the technical aspects are fucking great too. Deakins does some great work here, making the movie as beautifully murky as a story set in such a grey world. It may not be as good as his masterpiece (Skyfall), but its a damn fine looking picture. And the score too was really effective too, evoking 80s crime scores like Thief or To Live and Die In LA. Propulsive and nerve tightening without being overbearing. And Villeneuve gets good work out of all the technical crews to really heighten the tension in the movie where you always assume something bad is hiding behind every corner. There’s a set piece on the bridge connecting Mexico to America that is nail biting, but the whole movie is like that. It’s a marvel of tone how he keeps the movie so tense without being unwatchably tiring. This is a career best from Villeneuve and a sign that he is one to watch.
It’s a damn shame that this movie came out in 2015, since it by definition falls in the shadow of the titanic Mad Max: Fury Road. Many other years this would be a top pick. But in a sign that this is a good year, it ain’t. Everyone does amazing work, making a tight crime flick with some dark views of the world that never becomes unwatchably bleak. It’s a technical marvel that solidifies Villeneuve as a director to watch, and that makes the case for it’s cast as world class actors. Del Toro steals the movie from under us and makes me even more excited that he’s gonna be a villain in Star Wars Episode VIII. And makes me semi curious about what Villeneuve is gonna do with Blade Runner 2. I don’t know how Black Mass is personally, but I can tell you this is the movie to see this week. It’s a marvel. Do it up.