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‘Sicario’ film review

| Monday, October 5, 2015

Sicario_Scene_WebEric Richelsen | The Observer

The scene is Southwestern suburbia. Rows of cookie-cutter houses pierce the desert landscape. A team of FBI tactical agents converges on one of the houses. It doesn’t matter which one. It could be any house, anywhere. It turns out the house doesn’t hold what the FBI is looking for. Rather, it is the site of horrors transposed from a Cormac McCarthy novel. The heroine of “Sicario,” Special Agent Kate Macer (played by the incredible Emily Blunt), is so transfixed by the abhorrent sights — sights which director Denis Villeneuve and his cinematographer, Roger Deakins, document with unflinching resolve — that it is evident that “Sicario” is not simply another film about the ongoing war against drug cartels. That is, the five-minute opening to “Sicario” establishes it as a retelling of Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.” One that, by revealing the horrors beneath the facade of normality, is characterized by a startling irony reminiscent of “Blue Velvet,” “American Beauty” and “Breaking Bad.”

Macer’s seemingly futile efforts against the cartels capture the attention of Matt, a mysterious government agent played by Josh Brolin. His flip-flops — which Mr. Brolin seems to have stolen from the set of his previous film, “Inherent Vice” — and used-car salesman’s smile suggest his duplicity. He insists that Macer join his task force, an altogether risky proposition that Matt convinces Macer will be an opportunity to do more good in this world than her current position allows. Seeing just how persuasive that cheap smile can be, Macer’s immediate supervisor pleads with her: “Think hard before you decide to get involved.” It’s not the subtlest moment, but it works. This is the point of no return. Even if Macer makes it through the mission in one piece she will never be the same again.

Macer obliges and is quickly whisked away on Matt’s private jet where she meets Alejandro. As they depart the airfield, the trio passes dozens and dozens of Apache attack helicopters. Villeneuve foregrounds the United States’ inordinate defense budget not as a commentary, but to pose a question: What is the true cost of these agents’ work? In addition to offering reprieve from the action scenes’ immense tension, the film’s quieter moments provide an answer.

As played by the icy, exacting Benicio Del Toro, Alejandro’s intentions are even more difficult to glean than Matt’s. We are left with no doubt, however, as to the measures Alejandro is willing to use to achieve his goals. In one of the film’s most haunting scenes, Alejandro approaches a seemingly unbreakable hostage with a full 10-gallon water cooler jug. As the camera tilts down toward a drain in the floor, it becomes unsettlingly easy to imagine how Alejandro extracted the necessary information from the prisoner.

In a year without the release of “Mad Max: Fury Road,” “Sicario” would stand a chance at winning Academy Awards for cinematography (expect Deakins to snag his 13th nomination … always a bridesmaid), editing and sound mixing. For my money, those three awards have been spoken for since May. Awards aside, “Sicario’s” outstanding technical elements create some of the best onscreen action of the year. In one masterful sequence an entire caravan of SWAT SUVs crosses the border into Mexico to obtain a prisoner and deliver him to American soil for interrogation. The convoy knows they will be attacked. Alejandro even correctly predicts when and where they will be attacked, yet the editing — with its rapid, precise shifts in point of view from within the convoy to the safety of the American side of the border and back again — set to the terse radio dialogue of the SWAT team and Jóhann Jóhannsson’s brooding score, creates tension on par with that of the “Turandot” scene in “Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation.”

Villeneuve also uses Deakins’ compositions to service the film’s moral agenda. Sweeping overhead shots depict the stark boundary between suburbia and the desert landscape. Considering the opening scene of the film, these shots are a bleak reminder that no matter how desolate and unforgiving the natural world may be, true terror comes from human nature.

And what of that central question? What is the cost of all this terror, of all this violence? I think a small scene in which Macer torments herself, staring at images of violence on her computer — a sort of penance akin to Harvey Keitel holding his hand in the flame of a candle in “Mean Streets” — rather than the film’s ending, provides the answer.

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