“Sicario” Review (****½)

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Emily Blunt stars as FBI agent Kate Macer in “Sicario.”

French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve’s new addition to his dramatic, suspenseful filmography (“Incendies,” “Prisoners“) is “Sicario”a brutal thriller about a government task force and its hunt for a violent drug cartel along the United States/Mexico border. Armed with a brilliant cast and a heart-pounding score, Villeneuve delivers one of the year’s most beautifully shot, exhilarating films.

“Sicario” opens with FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) as she leads her SWAT team on a standard hostage raid on an Arizona home. Only this raid quickly takes a horrible turn. Her team comes across a gruesome discovery and an act of violence leads to the death of two team membersall the work of a dangerous Mexican drug cartel. Motivated by recent events, Kate is easily recruited by the flip-flop-clad government official Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and his mysterious partner Alejandro (Benicio del Toro) to join their interagency, anti-cartel task force. Almost immediately, Kate realizes she is getting more than she bargained for. She consistently finds herself left out of the loop by Matt and is thrown off by his off-the-book methods. Her idealism of law and morality slowly start to unravel as she delves deeper and deeper into the war on drugs.

Benicio del Toro stars as the mysterious Alejandro in “Sicario.” 

I came into the film expecting a powerhouse performance from Blunt, and she more than delivers, but in an unexpected way. There is a subtlety to her performance; she never goes for an over-the-top Oscar clip. She is consistently believable, depicting both strength and vulnerability in her slow awakening to the moral ambiguity surrounding the battle outside her country’s border. Josh Brolin brings his typical Josh Brolin-ness to the role, playing the smug, smart-mouthed government operative. His comedic lines provide a nice break from the film’s tension, yet it never takes away from the authority his character presumes.

The film’s stand-out performance belongs to del Toro, who plays the heavy-eyed, tight-lipped government ‘consultant’ with a dark past. I don’t want to give too much of the film away, as much of its suspense lies in the unpredictability and mystery of his character, but del Toro nearly steals the film away from Blunt (in more ways than one). He gives a nuanced performance and his presence on screen is as chilling as it is menacing (so much so that a sequel centered around his character is already in development). Along with Blunt, del Toro will surely be recognized for his role come awards season.

Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin and Benicio del Toro star in “Sicario.” 

It is no doubt that Villeneuve has crafted an intense thriller, but it would not have been as effective without the work of 12-time Oscar-nominated cinematographer Roger Deakins (“Skyfall,” “No Country for Old Men,” “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford”). He photographs the film beautifully, underlining both dread and violence with aerial shots of barren deserts and war-torn cities. In one climactic scene involving a nighttime operation in a claustrophobic tunnel, Deakins expertly captures the tension and danger of the mission in infrared—a true testament to his talent and eye for imagery. The execution of the film is completed with composer Jóhann Jóhannsson (“The Theory of Everything“), whose palpitating, ominous score accents the film’s suspense at every twist and turn. Come awards season, I expect both men to be nominated in their respected categories; a win for Deakins is long past due at the Academy.

As the end credits rolled, I unclenched my hands from my armrests and pulled myself up from my chair, letting out a deep sigh. “Sicario” was intense; and I mean edge-of-my-seat, nail-biting, heart-pounding intense. I hadn’t felt so engaged in a film since “Mad Max: Fury Road” earlier this year. Villeneuve’s “Sicario” more than deserves the big screen. Go for the brilliant performances. Go for the spectacular cinematography and riveting score. Go for the thrill. You won’t be disappointed.

4.5 out of 5 stars.

“Sicario” was an official selection at both the Cannes Film Festival and the Toronto International Film Festival. It had a limited release on September 18th and is set for a nationwide release on October 2nd.  

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