It’s clear that Denis Villeneuve revels in a juicy thriller. 2013’s ‘Prisoners’ was dripping in an atmosphere that was expertly crafted and saved the film when it began to lose its way, so it’s no surprise that he has returned to the genre with ‘Sicario’. The difference between this film and ‘Prisoners’ though is that it never loses track of where it’s going, guided along as it is by Villeneuve’s steady hand, some fantastic camerawork by veteran cinematographer Roger Deakins and a commanding, tension-inducing score by Johann Johannsson that doesn’t give you a moment’s peace.
This atmosphere means that the film never allows you to relax, keeping you on edge for its entire running time and making you guess what is coming next without ever becoming gimmicky. The story Villeneuve is telling here, of the blurred lines between law enforcement and the people they are attempting to catch, may be a popular one but this is a particularly clever take on that story, with Villeneuve using Emily Blunt’s main character Kate as a cipher for the audience, and someone for whom those blurred lines prove to be incredibly troubling. This is one of the hardest roles Blunt has played in her career, and she comes out of it brilliantly. Her performance is understated but confident, making sure she never puts a foot wrong in a film that cannot afford to lose its grip on you in order to maintain the levels of tension.
The air of tension with that inbuilt layer of thoughtfulness is further enhanced by fantastic performances from Josh Brolin and Benicio del Toro, both of whom encapsulate their characters perfectly and work fantastically in contrast with Blunt. Del Toro in particular has experience with films about the drugs trade having starred in Steven Soderbergh’s ‘Traffic’ but this film is markedly different in its approach. It’s not epic in scope and it doesn’t really seek to examine its characters outside of the realms of their work putting aside a mere couple of scenes, focusing instead on the job at hand and the morality of it all.
While the acting is suitably fantastic, as mentioned earlier a commendation must go to Roger Deakins for arguably the best cinematography of the year. The film’s dark, brooding pallet together with Deakins’ readiness to prolong a shot in order to ramp up the tension, often showing us tiny movements or facial expressions, reveal a lot more about what’s happening than fast edits from action sequence to action sequence. This deliberate style means that some of the sequences in the film are almost excruciatingly tense. There is a scene where the law enforcement team are stuck in traffic trying to return from Mexico to the US that sticks in the mind in particular, but it’s definitely the case that when the set pieces coming, the veteran cinematographer knows just how to film them for maximum effect. Perhaps this will finally get him the Oscar, at only the thirteenth time of asking.
‘Sicario’ is a thriller that makes use of every single second its running time to squeeze out every last drop of tension to the extent that you feel ill at ease the entire time you are watching it, and maybe even a little bit afterwards. From the exhilarating and shocking opening sequence through to its thought provoking, unrelenting and powerful story and on to an equally powerful ending, it’s a taut and smart work that is definitely the best thing Villeneuve has come up with so far, and is up there with the best films of the year.