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Movie Review: 'Sicario' shows the underbelly of the drug business

DECCAN CHRONICLE | ROHINI NAIR
Published Oct 8, 2015, 11:17 pm IST
Updated Mar 27, 2019, 1:36 pm IST
‘Sicario’ is grim, dark, and in its quiet way, gorgeous

Director: Denis Villeneuve

Cast: Emily Blunt, Benicio del Toro, Josh Brolin

 

Rating: 3 stars

After the expansive canvas of last week’s big Hollywood release, ‘The Martian’, comes the considerably more intimate and earthly concerns of this week’s ‘Sicario’. ‘Sicario’ (which means hitman or assassin) — starring Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin and Benicio del Toro — focuses on crime, and our attempts to control it. But it isn’t some crime of passion, or even a serial killer’s predilections that are being depicted in ‘Sicario’. Instead, it’s the US’ war against drugs, and the widespread reign of terror by the people running in the cartels in Mexico.

The film begins with Blunt’s character, FBI agent Kate, leading a mission into what seems like an abandoned home. One of the occupants attempt to shoot her, so she guns him down, but his shots tear through the walls of the house, and reveal a grisly secret — a row of bodies buried within. Kate’s team is stunned, but they’re intent on finding just who could be behind the large-scale murders. So when she gets a chance to volunteer for an inter-departmental mission headed by an elusive Department of Defence agent Matt (Brolin) and his even-more-secretive partner Alejandro (del Toro), she agrees.

The only woman in an elite task-force that comprises hardened war veterans and headed by Matt and Alejandro, who won’t give her any straight answers, Kate quickly finds she’s in over her head. She thinks their mission is to track down a cartel boss called Manuel Diaz. But she soon realises that Matt and Alejandro only feed her as much information as they deem fit, leaving her — and you, the viewer — completely off-balance and often, operating in the dark.

Since the film is told mostly through Kate’s point of view (there are very few scenes that we don’t see through her perspective), watching the film is like being in her head — you know only as much as she knows, her confusion is your confusion. And when she realises that she’s way out of her depth, you realise you’re a fairly out of your depth too.

The violence in ‘Sicario’ is gritty — all the more shocking for being, as one drug lord puts it, “not personal”. Crimes of passion, those fuelled by jealousy, or rage or greed, or even the liking that a psychopath may have for the act, one may understand. But the random and “mass” scale violence of the drug cartels — the kind of violence that is coldly impersonal, and carried out because it happens to be convenient for business — the horror of it seems even more acute. And you realise that the “good guys” are as comfortable with using that kind of violence as the “bad guys”.

‘Sicario’ may work for US audiences at many levels — the war on drugs is a problem that hits home for them, as does the cross-border equation with Mexico, and these comprise a major chunk of the film. But for other viewers from other parts of the world too, ‘Sicario’ provides gripping drama. For one, the actors have put in spellbinding performances. If Benicio del Toro is intense as Alejandro, Josh Brolin plays Matt with an easygoing charm that acts as a veneer for the violence he is capable of. And Emily Blunt plays strong-but-on-the-verge-of-a-breakdown Kate perfectly. Her tough officer act unravels quite a bit when she realises that all the ideas she’s held of law and proper procedure and an officer’s conduct mean next to nothing when you’re up against crime at this level, and that her involvement in the “good fight” is just as a pawn. Second, the story itself — tautly written by Taylor Sheridan is well-paced. Third, director Denis Villeneuve’s visuals are appropriately bleak, but none the less beautiful for it. The vistas of Arizona and then Mexico provide first vast endless stretches of space, and in the case of the latter, unending rows of shanties. The sound of gunfire is ever-present — even when it’s not part of the action at the centre of our screens — a testament to the ever-present threat of violence in (certain) parts of the world.

Sicario is grim, Sicario is dark, Sicario is also, in its quiet way, gorgeous.

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