Drug-Trade Thriller Sicario Is Brutal, Haunting and Unforgiving.

Sicario.
Director: Denis Villeneuve.
Writer: Taylor Sheridan.
Cast: Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, Benicio Del Toro, Daniel Kaluuya.
Playing At: Cinemark West Plano, AMC NorthPark.

Sicario is one of the most brutal, effective thrillers in recent memory. It's also incredibly violent and frequently disturbing.

This is a movie that doesn't let you sit back passively during the action. It grabs you by the hair and shoves your face in it.

Emily Blunt stars as Kate Macer, a straight-arrow FBI agent recruited to work for an off-the-books task force charged with bringing down the worst drug cartel in Mexico. Her handler is Matt, a gum-chewing, flip-flop-wearing good ol' boy played perfectly by Josh Brolin in his best performance to date. He seems dumb, but he uses his simpleton schtick to get what he wants, preying on Kate’s innocence to get her into increasingly dangerous situations.

And, boy, are those dangerous situations staged beautifully. Director Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners) has a knack for forcing you to the edge of your seat. Whether it's a raid, a border crossing or patrol stop, there's the constant feeling that one of these characters might not make it out alive.

Part of that's because of Benicio Del Toro's character Alejandro, a former Mexican prosecutor who now works as “consultant” for Matt. Quiet and sympathetic one minute, cold and vicious the next, it's never quite clear where his allegiance stands. It works because Del Toro is too giving a top-notch performance — his best since his Oscar-winning turn in Traffic 15 years ago.

All the performances are uniformly great, actually. But what makes Sicario so haunting is Roger Deakins' cinematography. His camera captures the most horrifying images from the most beautiful possible angles. And he switches his style up frequently, flipping from aerial shots to night-vision and even shots from atop a gun turret. His selection is always impeccable, making each scene that much better.

There's certainly a lot to take in visually. Much of the film takes place in Juarez and other contentious points along the border. Violence is everywhere: Dismembered bodies hang from overpasses, corpses are boarded up inside the walls of houses and there's distant gunfire interrupting a kids' soccer game. It pervades every frame, providing a sense of dread to nearly every scene. Even the moments that seem to provide a moment to breathe — like a cool-down at a bar — are simply preludes to more horror.

While Sicario reminded me of many different movies — in the best way — I thought back most to The Kingdom, Peter Berg's 2007 thriller. Like that film, which also managed to combine pulse-pounding action with thoughtful commentary, Sicario ends on a bleak note, suggesting that the bloodshed that happened onscreen in the name of justice is merely part of an ongoing cycle of violence that won't end anytime soon.

Grade: A-.

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