Review: Sicario

Last Updated on August 2, 2021

The following review originally ran as part of TIFF 2015

PLOT: After a routine bust unearths a houseful of corpses related to the cartels, an idealistic FBI agent (Emily Blunt) is recruited by a shadowy government operative (Josh Brolin) to be part of a deadly operation in Mexico, which seeks to unearth a well-insulated drug lord.

REVIEW: SICARIO is exactly the kind of movie I hope to see anytime I visit a film festival. A dark, harrowing look at the drug war, this is everything a successful crime drama should be. It has the thrills and action of a major Hollywood blockbuster, but at it's heart SICARIO is a deeply complicated, troubling story that takes place entirely in a world of grey. Hideous moral compromises are there to be made, and vengeance – while immediately satisfying – is proven to be a hollow victory at best.

This is familiar ground for director Denis Villeneuve, and in a way if could be seen at the third in a loose trilogy all tied together by the same theme. What's really intriguing about SICARIO is how, through Blunt's morally upstanding and occasionally naive agent, we're kept in the dark for so long only to finally have the carpet pulled out from under-us in an astonishing conclusion that will leave many jaws hanging wide open when it hits theaters later this month.

Like PRISONERS, this is an impeccably mounted production, with superb lensing by DP Roger Jenkins, and a tense, bass-heavy score by Johann Johannsson that's a far cry from his Oscar-winning, sentimental score for THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING. This is the first Villeneuve movie to really dabble in the action genre, and his violent set-pieces are superbly designed, with a border shootout that closes the first third of the movie being shot with a mounting sense of dread that's almost Hitchcockian. Later episodes prove to be just as effective.

As good as he is from a technical standpoint, what makes Villeneuve so effective is how he prioritizes story and performance over everything else, and working from a gritty script by former Sons of Anarchy-star Taylor Sheridan, SICARIO proves to be a stunning showcase for Emily Blunt and co-star Benicio del Toro. This is the perfect follow-up for Blunt to EDGE OF TOMORROW in that it continues her evolution into a grittier kind of heroine, although she's far more vulnerable here as an agent who's green enough that she still believes in the notion of good guys and bad guys. Along with her law-school grad partner (a very effective Daniel Kaluuya – who readers may remember from the Black Mirror episode 'Fifteen Million Merits'), she's our moral compass throughout, and Blunt's humanity and fear in the face of the escalating violence keeps her as a kind of de-facto surrogate for the audience.

As good as she is though, SICARIO can't help but belong to del Toro. Playing a dapper, middle-aged former prosecutor from Columbia turned merciless gunman working against the cartels, he's by far the most complex character, suggesting a formerly upstanding diplomat who, when faced with unspeakable brutality, became a kind of animal himself, willing to go to any lengths to accomplish his mission. I don't know that del Toro's ever had a better role, and in a way this feels like a kind of follow-up to his Oscar-winning turn in TRAFFIC, where we see the tragic dividends his stance against the cartels paid-off in. His chemistry with Blunt, who he possibly sees shred of his former self-in, is understated but incredibly effective, and the method-like intensity he brings to the action sequences is on the level of Pacino/De Niro in Michael Mann's HEAT.

The supporting cast is also incredibly solid, with Brolin embellishing his government operative with a uniquely laid-back personality that feels fresh and unexpected. Rather than bark orders, he's happier joking around between naps while wearing sandals, even his his gregariousness seems like a deliberate tactic. Burn Notice's Jeffrey Donovan has a great little part as a bespectacled, mustachioed operative, while Jon Bernthal has an outstanding cameo that leads to one of the movie's best set-pieces.

With SICARIO, Denis Villeneuve's built on the massive promise he showed with his last few films, and proves once again that's he's among the best directors of his generation. SICARIO is a lean, mean little masterpiece of the action-thriller genre and easily the best thing I've seen since FURY ROAD. It's my first film of TIFF 2015, but I wouldn't be a bit surprised if it turned out to be the best.

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About the Author

Chris Bumbray began his career with JoBlo as the resident film critic (and James Bond expert) way back in 2007, and he has stuck around ever since, being named editor-in-chief in 2021. A voting member of the CCA and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic, you can also catch Chris discussing pop culture regularly on CTV News Channel.