2 hours, 1 minute
“Sicario,” the new border thriller starring Emily Blunt and Benicio Del Toro is often hard to watch.
It’s especially hard to watch for me because a good part of it takes place in my old hometown of El Paso, Texas. It’s crazy to me that Juarez, Mexico has become synonymous with a house of horrors — a place only crazy people would go. You get the feeling that roving bands of drug dealers are waiting just over the border to kidnap and decapitate you.
This is certainly overstating reality a little, but it’s not overstating it to say that I wouldn’t go there now. And this from a guy who, as a teenager, crossed the border plenty. Back then we thought of Juarez as seedy and dangerous, but because you might get mugged, not murdered. It’s amazing how quickly that’s changed. Young people today don’t need a lot of back story — they know if a movie goes to Juarez, something bad’s going down.
“Sicario,” Spanish for “hitman,” as the opening title cards tell us, is all about bad stuff going down. When a Kidnap and Rescue team, led by officer Kate Macer (Blunt) raids a home in Chandler, Arizona, they are expecting to find hostages.
Instead they find a structure who’s walls are stuffed with dead bodies, a chilling reminder of the drug war that is spilling over the border. Kate’s experience, or maybe lack thereof, leads shadowy CIA agent Matt Graver to recruit her to join a special team dedicated to taking out one of the Mexican cartel’s top officers, maybe even tipping the scales in this never-ending war. Along for the ride is even shadowy-er Alejandro, played with well placed weariness by Del Toro.
But as lines are blurred and then crossed, Kate realizes she may be giving up more than she bargained for in the pursuit of justice.
“Sicario,” bleak though it is, is brilliantly constructed. The story parcels out just enough information to keep you going, without really revealing the real truth. When it does, the curtain is parted slowly, the secrets answered subtly enough that it takes you a second to realize what’s going on. It’s nice and welcome change from the usual “shocker” ending.
I was particularly struck by the cinematography. The brilliant Roger Deakins, known for his long working relationship with the Coen brothers, brings a stark, beautiful vision to the screen. The acting is top-notch. Del Toro masterfully plays an unflappable exterior with a nervous desperation just underneath.
Josh Brolin, as Graver, is the exact opposite of Alejandro, though his cavalier attitude comes more from cynicism than from any lack of understanding.
Best of all, and I’m biased because she’s my favorite actress working today, is Emily Blunt as Kate. She starts tired and disillusioned and somehow manages to keep turning the screws on her emotion until by the end she’s ready to break. This is not the role I expected from her, and I have to say it’s a brave role to play — one without any big hoo-rah moments. She is our conduit into this world of violence and horror, and not as we wish we could be, but as we are, incapable of understanding or even, ultimately, facing it. Her complicated relationship with Del Toro is my favorite thing about the film.
There were a few issues I had with the film, though I’m not sure if it’s a problem with the movie or just that it isn’t quite the movie I wanted to see. Though there is much brutality, there is very little examination of the whys. Drug dealers just are. CIA guys just are.
This is not to say that the characters are cardboard cutouts — far from it — but as to the larger questions, the film really doesn’t address them. That lack of context leads a few of the more gruesome descriptions of Cartel mayhem to come off as almost silly sounding, though I’m sure the circumstances are not made up. That’s vague, I know, but the problem I’m having is a little fuzzy in my head. I know I wanted to know more about the other characters, and the movie offers very little exposition about anyone besides Kate. That’s probably intentional, but it’s slightly frustrating.
“Sicario” is not necessarily fun. The preview paints it as a cops and robbers shoot-em-up, but the film is more in the family of “No Country for Old Men,” or last year’s “The Counselor.” The difference between “Sicario” and “The Counselor,” however, is that “Sicario” isn’t a horrible trainwreck. It’s beautifully made, excellently acted, and punishingly bleak.
Be forewarned. Grade: A-
“Sicario” is rated R for gruesome violence, grisly images, and language.
Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.