Sicario is a movie that rumbles. I mean that literally: Through the first half of the film, there’s rarely a scene in which something isn’t growling or grumbling in the background. Sometimes the sound comes from something big, like a passing APC engine or a helicopter blade, and sometimes from something small, like a kid rolling an orange across a table or an interrogator grinding a cap back onto a water bottle. It gives the film an underlying uneasiness, especially when compounded with the film’s music. The groaning soundtrack is insane; it sounds something like the score of Inception, if you drilled it with drums, handed it to Skrillex, and then asked him to go remix it in hell. That’s exactly where this movie wants to take you, by the way, so get ready for that.
Before the descent, director Denis Villeneuve makes a swiftly moving action thriller that draws inspiration from the likes of Training Day and Michael Mann’s action catalogue; Mann’s influence is particularly noticeable during the gunfights here, which are as relentless and clean as anything you’ll find in Collateral or Heat. At the center of those shootouts is Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), a hardened-but-idealistic FBI agent who gets roped into a mysterious operation that has something to do with Mexican drug cartels. She’s led by two “advisors” named Alejandro and Matt (Benicio Del Toro and Josh Brolin) and, like the audience, never fully knows what’s going on. She’s whisked across the desert from one location to another, all the while trying to figure out who she’s really working for and why they are suddenly so interested in killing Mexican cartel members.
The casting of the movie couldn’t have been more spot-on. Blunt, who is quickly becoming one of the best action actors we have, gives balance to a character who is both way out of her depth and also capable of shooting anyone who tries some shit right in the face. It’s no easy feat given how insistent the movie is on brutalizing her both physically and emotionally, but she manages to keep her balance even after being reduced to a chain-smoking, trembling mess after a few scrapes with death.
Alongside her, Brolin expertly channels all of the smiley, gum-popping malevolence that I assume every sociopathic Blackwater operative carries around. But the movie belongs to Del Toro, who has something like two dozen lines of dialogue at most, but still manages to be the most captivating person onscreen. Del Toro is wearily violent in a way that will make you desperate to know how he came to be this way, and every one of his maddening meditations (“You’re asking me how a watch works—for now, let’s just keep our eyes on the time”) will make you want to follow him deeper into the fucked-up depths that the movie plunges into.
This might sound like it has all the elements of a fun action movie, but Villenueve has no interest in showing you a good time, opting for something much more punishing instead. Sicario, with its walls of sound and sun-drenched panoramas, beats down on both the characters and the audience, continuously ratcheting up the tension until it starts to feel like some sort of horrific thriller.
Honestly, the film might be a horror movie. At one point, the film’s incessant growling gives way to scenes marked by eerie, expansive silence, and the Mann-ian action scenes become dense with the feeling of dread. The climactic action sequence is shot unlike any I can remember seeing before: The camera moves like it’s waiting for a serial killer to jump out from behind every corner, gunshots are played for jump scares, and the screen is suddenly full of monsters instead of soldiers.
Whether this all works for you probably depends on what kind of movie you’re expecting to see. At one point near the beginning of the film, Del Toro’s character issues a warning to Blunt’s character: “Nothing will make sense to your American ears.” He might as well have been talking to audience members who assumed that Sicario would keep them riding the popcorn highs they got from summer blockbusters like Mad Max and Mission Impossible. Instead, we get dead people hidden in the walls of a house, mutilated corpses dangling from a highway overpass, and a main character beaten down to the point of near absurdity. This world is much more bleak than anything Immortan Joe could dream up, but you’ll want to stick around for the sake of finding out where the rabbithole of violence ends. Skip the popcorn, though: You’ll be too goddamn stressed out to touch any of it, anyway.
Screenshot images from YouTube.