The film opens with an explanation of the word “Sicario” that ends with saying that in Mexico, it means “hitman.” That opening makes the film predictable and telegraphed. But I really don’t think that Villeneuve and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan care. They made it really obvious what they wanted to say, to the point that televisions are basically blaring it into your eyeballs in some scenes. But subtlety isn’t a necessary quality for a film, and Villeneuve seems to have wanted more than anything to make sure that everyone knows what he had to say.
And what he had to say is actually rather complex: the modern world has destroyed all morality.
We start off with a by-the-book FBI agent working with her partner and local police to resolve a kidnapping only to discover 42 bodies hidden in the wall of a house and an explosives-trapped cellar that kills two local police. She gets drawn into a multi-agency taskforce going after the head of the Cartel that was behind the grisly scene. The taskforce is headed by a mysterious Department of Defense liaison who carefully hides his exact connection to everything and a brooding, quiet attorney who is immediately obvious as the titular hitman but not revealed as such until nearly the end of the film. They keep her in the dark about even the basics of what they’re doing, only answering to the objections she and her partner raise when they threaten to walk off. Throughout, she continues to question the ethics and legality of their actions while they refuse to explain or defend themselves, slowly falling into the belief that the line she has always seen between good and evil does not exist.
The point of the film is revealed both through her moral journey and, more conspicuously, in her slow discovery of the true nature of the quiet lawyer, Alejandro. She only uncovers bits and pieces about him until the DOD liaison finally reveals that Alejandro is a paid assassin who just wants revenge against Fausto Alarcon, who killed Alejandro’s wife and daughter years ago.
What’s really interesting about what this film has to say is that it suggests that everyone is complicit in creating this monster. It gives us shots of television screens where politicians are authorizing large expenditures on anti-drug and anti-terrorism measures to tell us that the government is involved. It gives us tons and tons of helicopter shots of the countryside, the highways, Phoenix, Juarez, and everything else, telling us that it’s partly the nature of people and geography. I’m not sure it really makes its point incredibly well, but it definitely makes sure we recognize it.
Villeneuve and cinematographer Roger Deakins don’t do a lot beyond composition, but this film is as careful about its composition as any film since Halloween (John Carpenter, USA 1978). It uses long shots and placement of its actors to emphasize its points and makes it all work. It generally leaves the score and the actors to make everything really work, which is kind of a shame because it could use just a little more visual imagination.
The score deserves mention far earlier than usual. Jóhann Jóhannsson creates music that is deeply, deeply unsettling. It’s not any more subtle than the rest of the film, but that sure works. Just listening to it is scarier than most horror films, and it adds a great deal to the already-present creepy atmosphere. Benicio del Toro does a lot, but it’s the score and the cinematography that make this film scary, which it most definitely is.
Benicio del Toro has somehow managed to remain an underappreciated supporting actor in spite of decades of fantastic work that everyone has seen. And none of that work is better than this. From when he first appears on screen, it’s obvious who he is just from his performance. He’s haunted by something in his past. He’s hyper-vigilant. He’s quiet (a dead giveaway that he’s not working as an attorney these days). He moves quickly and efficiently.
Josh Brolin’s character is more defined by scripting work, sleeping on the plane and wearing sandals. He’s someone who is clearly confident in himself. So confident that he feels no need to try to prove himself to anyone. But Brolin definitely brings that through.
Emily Blunt was a coup in casting. Few people can appear as tough and as vulnerable as she can, which is perfect for the part of a tough FBI agent who is slowly having her moral/ethical/logical rug pulled out from under her throughout the film and who has to show enough vulnerability when fearful that we can understand it even though she is a more than formidable person in general.
No one else gets much of a chance to do anything. Those three are on screen for about 95% of the film and no other characters get any significant depth. However, that’s some fantastic acting to head the film.
Overall, Sicario wears its point on its sleeve and doesn’t do anything with any subtlety. I’m also not sure it really takes a stance on what it’s saying has happened to the world. But it makes it clear what it thinks has happened to the world, and does it in a variety of excellent artistic ways. That’s what makes a good film.