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In the lawless border area stretching between the U.S. and Mexico, an idealistic FBI agent named Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is enlisted by Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), an elite government task force official, to aid in the escalating war against drugs. Led by Alejandro Gillickan (Benicio Del Toro), an enigmatic consultant with a questionable past, the team sets out on a clandestine journey forcing Kate to question everything that she believes in order to survive. (From Lionsgate’s official synopsis)

 Sicario
Mexican drug cartels and the related border town drug wars are big news and a hot-button political issue this upcoming election year. And yet, big-ticket Hollywood movies on the subject have been mostly limited to B-action spectacle (Kim Jee-woon’s The Last Stand, 2013; R. Ellis Frazier’s Misfire, 2014; and Waymon Boone’s grammatically-challenged The Devil’s in the Details, 2012). If memory serves, I believe Oliver Stone’s recent misfire, Savages (2012), is the closest thing to a prestige picture on the subject since Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic, way back in 1999. At first glance, Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario appears to be the answer to Hollywood’s drug war deficiency. I did not enjoy the last critically-acclaimed Villeneuve movie I saw – Prisoners (2013) (if you did, I definitely recommend watching Aharon Keshales & Navot Papushado’s  Big Bad Wolves, which is a vastly superior film with basically the same plot) – so I approached Sicario with trepidation.

For his part, Villeneuve does more or less what he did for Prisoners, by keeping the tone almost unbearably somber. The stark silences and occasionally lethargic pacing reek of self-importance, but the narrative intrigue supports the director’s tonal choices (at least more than it supported the perverted suburbia of Prisoners). Having only seen two of his films, I get the feeling he is a frustrated horror film maker who has trapped himself within the confines of prestige pictures. Sicario is a frightening experience, where sudden bursts of violence, grotesquely mutilated bodies, and implied rape set the stage for a world where the worst can happen at any moment. The slick intensity of the pre-action set-ups feels like a return to early ‘90s political thrillers and reminds me of Phillip Noyce’s underrated work on Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger (1994). It’s a nice antidote to the Paul Greengrass/ Bourne Supremacy brand of shaky-cam style that took over the industry about a decade ago. I’m not convinced Villeneuve is the only director that could’ve made a good movie from actor-turned-first-time screenwriter Taylor Sheridan’s script, but his instincts certainly served the material.

 Sicario
Like Traffic, Sicario contextualizes the complexity of the drug wars within the experiences of characters. There’s plenty of rich and shocking imagery, beautifully blocked action, and nail-biting suspense, but Sheridan is sure to tie it all to the points of view of the people on the front line, usually Agent Macer – an audience surrogate who rarely has all of the facts at her disposal. The plot is frustratingly convoluted at times and the stringent focus on Macer’s character is clumsily betrayed during the final act, where Sheridan and Villeneuve shift the POV dramatically away from her, but the story keeps coming back to people and their emotional experiences. Again, this is something even I can admit that Villeneuve can do well. I can complain about Prisoners’ dopey politics, uncouth melodrama, and stolen final act (cough, cough, The Vanishing, cough), but I can’t deny that its director brings out passion in his actors. Sicario features eclectic, near-career-best turns from Josh Brolin and Benicio del Toro (who, I’d like to note, appears in Traffic and Savages, too), but the entire movie is heavily anchored in Emily Blunt’s stunning, yet understated performance. As she shoulders some very heavy drama without histrionics, the politics of her gender are delegated mostly to subtext. The unspoken complications her sex adds to the situation is surprisingly potent, more so than I’m guessing a more blunt portrayal would (if you’ll excuse the pun). The most apt and obvious comparison would be Jonathan Demme’s Silence of the Lambs (1991), where Jodie Foster’s gender is an underlying issue the entire film, but rarely discussed outright. Except that Foster ends her film surmounting by the elaborate, ambiguous rules of law enforcement, while Blunt ends hers run down by muddied morals.

 Sicario

Video


Sicario was shot mostly using Arri Alexa digital HD cameras and is presented here in 1080p, 2.40:1 video. Villeneuve worked with world-class cinematographer Roger Deakins and it shows in terms of its overall class and beauty. It’s also clear that Deakins is still sort of in Skyfall mode, because the structure and colour timing skirts the line between film and digital footage. It’s an intriguing and eclectic style that implies naturalism, but is actually quite affected, especially the glowing yellow interiors and dimly blue night shots. These more monochromatic sequences contrast nicely with the lively, poppy daylight exteriors. The digital format’s softer gradations are used without flattening any of the finer elements. Details are tight from front to back, in part because Deakins leaves the focus wide, but also because the footage itself is so clean and nicely balanced. There is no film grain and very little digital noise, but the cleanliness doesn’t detract from the fine textures of clothing, skin, hair, and the rocky, sandy desert. Black levels are pure and well separated, but there are a couple of scenes that are so dark that it’s difficult to discern the action. The closest thing I can find to a problem here are some minor haloes during the super-wide helicopter shots of locations.

Audio


Sicario is presented in Dolby Atmos sound with a typical core Dolby TrueHD 7.1 track, which is what I am reviewing here. The bulk of the film is dialogue-driven – whispery dialogue at that – but Villeneuve’s ‘anything can happen’ tone ensures that every little noise might blow out your eardrums at any moment. There are big audio moments, like explosions and shootouts, but this is a case where the atmospheric sounds are more impressive. This includes some of the most accurate aural portraits of helicopters, airplanes, and automobiles I’ve ever heard in a movie. It seems like a small thing, but these only slightly heightened quality of these natural noises, with their Atmos-ready multi-channel movement, help to prime the audience for those aforementioned bombastic moments. Jóhann Jóhannsson’s mostly ambient, bleak, horror movie-like score settles nicely beneath all of the ambience, filling the room and giving the LFE a nice boost.

 Sicario

Extras


  • Stepping into Darkness: The Visual Design of Sicario (16:50, HD) – This rather serious featurette explores the film’s overall style, including cinematography, locations, and production/costume design.
  • Blunt, Brolin & Benicio: Portraying the Characters of Sicario (14:40, HD) – The cast & crew discuss the three main characters and the actors that portray them.
  • Battle Zone: The Origins of Sicario (13:50, HD) – A look at the current historical precedent that the film is based upon, including disturbing footage of the real-life brutality committed by drug cartels.
  • A Pulse from the Desert: The Score of Sicario (6:20, HD) – The filmmakers discuss Jóhannsson’s austere soundtrack.
  • Trailers for other Lionsgate releases


 Sicario

Overall


I wasn’t quite as enamored with Sicario as some folks, but it’s an intense and seemingly honest depiction of the current Mexican drug wars. Director Denis Villeneuve’s specific, sometimes annoying filmmaking tendencies fit the material, the screenplay is anchored in strong characters, and the performances are great. Lionsgate’s Blu-ray features a strong HD transfer and a beautifully subtle Dolby Atmos soundtrack, alongside a decent, though sometimes stunted collection of special features.

 Sicario

 Sicario
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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