Monday, 12 October 2015

Movie Review: Sicario (2015)



In today’s day and age where people have grown more and more sceptical of their nation’s military and government (rightfully so, in most regards), the question of how they justify their actions has grown in poignancy. This is especially true in the world of entertainment, where the times when propaganda pieces about the ‘Red Menace’ are long since behind us. There’s a reason why action films involving soldiers rescuing hostages in foreign jungle settings aren’t nearly as prevalent, and it’s not just because they mostly suck the big one: Violence with lack of justification, when it comes to government-sanctioned officers, isn’t nearly as accepted as it once mystifyingly was. One look at the works of Kathryn Bigelow and Clint Eastwood will see this mindset in full force, where actions are constantly brought into question and that lingering question hangs over everyone’s heads. Today, it’s time to dip into that pool once again. This is Sicario.

The plot: Kate (Emily Blunt) is an FBI agent who, after discovering a particularly grizzly scene at the safe house of a drug runner, volunteers to be part of a government task force meant to hunt down the people responsible, led by agents Matt (Josh Brolin) and Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro). However, as they bring her into their world, their views and their methods, Kate begins to question whether the ends justify the means or even if she’s indeed working for the ‘good’ guys.

Even considering how well our main three actors have been doing of late, this would easily rank amongst their strongest performances all round. Josh Brolin as the deceptively relaxed Matt, who spends a lot of the first act like he’s taking the role of a Dudeist priest a little too seriously, actually becomes unnerving because of how lax his attitudes to his work are. This year has already delivered us some deeply desensitized government soldiers in American Sniper, only this carries a proper sense of dread with just how settled he is into his role. What’s more, because of the very grey tone of the film overall, while it could be argued that he is the real bad guy, it is by no means definitive; for as disturbing as his actions are, he may not even be the worst in this film’s universe. Benicio Del Toro has been relatively quiet lately, save for appearing as The Collector in last year’s crowning crowd-pleaser Guardians Of The Galaxy, but he comes back with a vengeance with an intense performance that embodies the film’s moral stances perfectly. It gets to the point where even the film itself begins to question his motives once he gets his moment to shine, creating a genuinely intimidating presence on screen. But, without a shadow of a doubt, it’s Emma Blunt who owns this movie. Serving as the audience viewpoint character, learning the ways of this seedier operation as we do, she gets put through the presses as everything she thought she knew about justice and due process is crushed via a series of harrowing events.

In case it hasn’t been made clear yet, this is not a pleasant film. In fact, this easily ranks up there among the murkiest productions of the year, channelling Denis Villeneuve’s proclivity for tough moral questioning that we got to see in sickening detail in 2013’s Prisoners. However, it’s feels like he thought he didn’t go far enough last time, like seeing Hugh Jackman torturing someone wasn’t enough to make someone lose hope for anything good in this world. Sure, this contains similar gut-churning ideas about justifying torture in the name of seeking justice, but pushes it further by bringing it into the context of the drug war on the U.S./Mexico border. It would have been ridiculously easy for the film to just take the underdog’s side and show the U.S. as the bad guys in the conflict, but this doesn’t take the easy way out; not by a long shot.

Throughout the film, the script keeps drawing parallels between the U.S. government and the Mexican cartel concerning their methods. Sure, the U.S. is extremely blasé about their methods and attitudes concerning who gets caught in the crossfire, but it’s not as if the cartel are just misunderstood themselves, as the skin-crawling depictions of the people they make examples of show. For just a taste of how intense this film can get, the scene from the trailer with the bodies in the walls of the house? That’s how the film starts and that isn’t even the height of that sequence, not is it the last time that we see its like within the film. What makes this somewhat bearable is that, again like with Prisoners, Villeneuve takes a rather tasteful approach to depicting the torture scenes: We only end up hearing what happens to them in any detail. I know that I’ve mentioned the rule of “what we don’t see is often scarier” numerous times before, but this is example A for why that is. Take notes, Eli Roth; this is scary. The most disturbing part of the entire film though, oddly enough, is also its brightest moment. Without giving away too many *SPOILERS*, let’s just say that the contrast between Kate’s down time and her work can get rather depressing, especially when it becomes evident that, now that she is ingrained in Matt’s world, she can’t even escape it. Through Blunt’s portrayal of utter betrayal, tension and confusion, we see the moment where her submission to the world she now lives in solidifies, creating something genuinely heartbreaking.

Cinematographer Roger Deakins, probably best known for his work with the Coen brothers, brings some genuinely inspired ideas to the table with his camera work. Given his history within the industry, it should come as no surprise, but these are the kind of shots that make film students milk themselves in ecstasy. His use of slow, deliberate shots, usually to highlight the contrast between the two opposing sides, bring the audience’s attention right into the black and unrelenting heart of what they are both doing in this fight. However, this reaches the levels of cinematic genius when it comes to the scene where the soldiers storm the drug-runner’s tunnel; just something as simple as changing the filter on the POV shots between characters seriously added tremendously to the scene by continuing the idea of just how in-the-dark Emma Blunt’s character is. Add to this Jóhann Jóhannsson’s slow burn of a musical score, which gradually builds to a thunderous boom in scenes, and this easily makes for one of the most structurally brilliant films of the year.

All in all, this is a seriously masterful creation. Denis Villeneuve takes us on another trip into the shadows, only this time bringing the audience even closer to realizing that maybe such darkness is actually rational, with a superb cast lead by Blunt, Brolin and Del Toro, a greyer-than-grey script by Taylor Sheridan (seriously, give this guy more work for the love of all things holy) and drop-dead gorgeous camera work by Roger Deakins. It ranks higher than Straight Outta Compton, based on how well put together the entire production is, but out of respect for how surprisingly gratifying the ending was, it only just falls short of It Follows. This is by no means a film for the faint of heart, and you might want to take a long shower afterwards, but if you can stomach the darker side of cinema, I strongly urge you to check this movie out.

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