September 11, 2015

SHOWBUZZDAILY Toronto Film Festival Review: “Sicario”


The director Denis Villenueve has been staking out some interesting Hollywood territory for himself.  His new SICARIO, which debuted at Cannes and screened at the Toronto Film Festival prior to arriving in theatres next week, is, like his previous Prisoners, a serious adult thriller that demands audience attention and doesn’t compromise its dramatic principles, exactly the kind of movie hardly anyone else seems interested in making these days.  (For the big screen, anyway.)  Villenueve’s aesthetic and commitment recalls the films of the 1970s, but not in the fetishistic way that some contemporary filmmakers employ when their work relates to that era.  Villenueve appears simply to share the kind of worldview that animated the likes of Friedkin and Lumet in those days.

Sicario, in particular, is far more subversive than the comfortably cynical genre piece it initially seems to be.  Its script by Taylor Sheridan puts us back into the federal drug war, that doomed combat played out along the Texas and Arizona borders with Mexico.  We’ve seen these stories before, we know everyone involved is playing all sides at once.  Hell, no less than Oliver Stone, in Savages, was unable to bring the setting to life.  There are tense, brawny (and bloody) action sequences here, but slick action sequences are Hollywood’s speciality.  Villenueve and Sheridan’s approach is different, though, in the way they use their protagonist, Kate Macer (Emily Blunt, giving the performance of her career thus far).  Kate is no neophyte:  she’s a crack FBI agent, who we meet as she raids a Phoenix cartel house that turns out to be a horrific body drop.  On the strength of that operation, she’s invited to join a inter-agency task force headed by Matt (Josh Brolin) and advised by Alejandro (Benicio del Toro).  She knows there’s something fishy about them, but signs on anyway.

A staple of the American action film is that the hero is nearly always at least one step ahead of everybody else, the person who gets custody of the script’s “A-ha!” moments.  That’s what we as viewers expect, and that’s what Kate expects, too.  It shocks her, again and again, not to be the smartest person in the room, and for all the claustrophobic tunnel raids and the deadly border crossings, the real center of Sicario is Kate’s gradual implosion, as she realizes just how little she knows.  Many of the film’s crucial scenes are played off close-ups of Blunt, and her work is disturbing in all the right ways.  Brolin and del Toro are working more in their wheelhouses, but they’re outstanding as well, especially del Toro, whose character is the script’s main onion to be unpeeled.  (Jon Bernthal is also notable in a small but critical role.)  The film refuses to let us off the hook with easy answers.

Apart from his conceptual daring, Villenueve provides plenty of first-rate Hollywood craft.  He works here once again with the great Roger Deakins, who shot Prisoners, and Deakins provides a non-stop highlight reel, with everything from landscapes that could be from planets in a sci-fi movie, to chase scenes shot with night-vision and thermal imagery, to grittily realistic interiors.  Johann Johannsson has contributed a powerfully percussive score, and Joe Walker’s editing is able to encompass the jumpy rhythms of ambushes and the slow revelations of character.

Sicario is likely to be a tough sell for Lionsgate (Prisoners, too, was only moderately successful), apt to be caught between the cracks as too cerebral for the action crowd, and too much of a genre story for awards season.  It’s one of the year’s best, though, and Blunt is only first among the movie’s talent who should be remembered when the pundits start issuing their awards wish lists.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."