Tension is the byproduct of nearly element in Sicario, which in execution could have been disastrous or gimmicky if not for Denis Villeneuve (Enemy, Prisoners)’s masterful ability to yield it. It’s the type of tension that will drive you to the literal edge of your seat; it’s the type of tension that makes Sicario brilliantly live up to the thriller genre, and one of the best films of the year.
Told through the perspective of FBI agent Kate (Emily Blunt, The Edge of Tomorrow, Into the Woods), Sicario (which means “hitman”)is about a secretive American operation to take down the leader of a Mexican cartel. Recruited by senior agent Matt (Josh Brolin, Avengers: Age of Ultron, No Country for Old Men) and a man named Alejandro (Benicio del Toro, Traffic, Guardians of the Galaxy), Kate is placed in the operation without much knowledge about the actual case. As she slowly unravels details, her sense of morality is challenged by the ambiguity of the situation and her coworkers.
A combination of Emily Blunt’s finesse with action scenes, physical toughness and vulnerability make Kate a strong female character to experience this very problematic world in throughout the film. It elevates the entire suspenseful journey screenwriter Tyler Sheridan (who you may recall as the morally confused Detective Hale on Sons of Anarchy) built when you have a focal point that acknowledges when the line between right and wrong is being crossed. By contrast, del Toro and Brolin carry out a slick sense of confidence and masculinity in their secretive ways; for the former, it is covert and understated, and for the latter, it is more traditional. While these three performances are equally essential and balanced, del Toro, both individually and in his chemistry with Blunt, is quietly pointed and unnerving.
While discussing this film in vague terms and overviews might seem fruitless, it is almost necessary in order to let the film speak for itself and to get the full effect of Villeneuve’s impeccable direction. With the assistance of frequent collaborator/cinematographer Roger Deakins, he crafts these visually dramatic scenes not by aimlessly throwing images for a cheap shock factor, but by using the dry American suburbs, deserts and the city of Juárez to drive that sense of an unknowing danger. Everything in this film is designed to make you feel an urgency creeping up on you, without any sense of what you actually want to rush towards. That tone is only furthered by a heightened and eerie score from Jóhann Jóhannsson (who won an Academy Award for his work on The Theory of Everything earlier this year), which will loudly follow you, along with everything else, when you leave the theatre.
That is why the tension is so critical to the actual film’s success; where many other films fall through upon the climax and conclusion, Sicario continues the momentum into the very last minute of the story. Its consistency doesn’t suffer by a lifeless objective of making the tension last for the sake of it; it feels purposeful to the very end.
I screened Sicario at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. Sicario is currently out on limited release in North America before going wide on October 2nd.