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A problem rarely acknowledged in movies is when a film’s script and direction aren’t on the same page. For Sicario (the title is a Mexican term for hitman) that’s a good problem to have.
Director Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners) and cinematographer Roger Deakins create a series of visually stunning sequences that throb (literally, thanks to a pulsing soundtrack) with dread. And early on, dread is what animates this film, as FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) leads a raid to rescue hostages only to find a suburban house where the walls are full of corpses and the verdict from everyone around her is ‘things are only going to get worse”.
From there she’s drawn into an ominous government task force led by Matt (Josh Brolin), who says his objective is to “dramatically overreact” while the quiet Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) says little but implies a world of hurt. Next stop is south of the border, where cartel victims hang mutilated from overpasses and an attack on their convoy – there to bring a cartel boss back to the USA – is all but a certainty. It’s an utterly compelling vision of the war on drugs as a militarised version of hell, but as it progresses the script starts to crack slightly under the strain of maintaining the bleak tension of the early scenes.
Macer is gradually sidelined as the true nature of what’s going on is exposed, a revelation that both makes perfect sense and yet somehow lessens the film, as if a horror as large and as ongoing as what we’ve been shown can somehow be boiled down to a handful of people.
A Mexican subplot that only intersects with the main story towards the end turns out to be a version of that old Austin Powers joke about a henchman’s backstory, while the film’s early stance that drugs have turned Mexico into a hell that is coming home to roost in America only really works if you think America isn’t already hellish enough – it’s not like drugs and guns are in short supply either side of the border. But these are the kind of quibbles that occur on the way home; while you’re in the cinema this is the kind of gripping, queasy film that puts your head in a vice and won’t let you turn away.
Reviewed by Anthony Morris