The basic telling of a story starts with the W’s: who, what, where, when, and why. We learn this in elementary English class. A class Sicario apparently skipped. Who? A Mexican, perhaps, but it’s unclear exactly who is the target at any given time. What? Something to do with drugs. And guns. Where? …Mexico? When? Present day! I think. Why? Well because, um, it’s… Hmm…
Here’s what I do know: the southern U.S.A. has a drug problem and it’s routed in Mexican cartels. We begin Sicario by following Kate (Emily Blunt) and her partner, Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya), as they and their FBI team infiltrate a suspected hostage hideout. What they find is a whole lot of death and a whole lot of questions. But forget about all that (if you can un-burn it from your retinas), it will never be mentioned again. An elite team (CIA maybe?) requests that Kate join their mission to stop this drug-related violence at its source: Mexico. Kate joins up with Matt (Josh Brolin), his sketchy sidekick, Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), and their team of special ops soldiers to stand in the background and waste air. Kate has questions – as do we – but those questions are not answered until her partner, Reggie, enters from out of nowhere and asks those questions for her. The rest of Sicario plays out like a game of follow-the-leader-and-don’t-get-shot.
Basically, watching Sicario is like trying to read a text that suffered the wrath of a hole punch; there are a few gaps. Gap number one is the obvious one, where Kate is hired to be kept in the dark. Although I believe not telling her what country she is currently standing in is a bit of a stretch. It is also explicitly stated that Matt’s team is only interested in Kate, not Reggie. Even if Kate asks her partner to be present, I felt we were missing the explanation as to why Reggie gets to listen to all the secret info and provide personal input. They may as well put him on the payroll too. And finally, why would Kate’s boss, who knows her as a rule-follower, volunteer her for this super-secret, under cover, PTSD-inflicting, string-pulling, illegal operation??
The chewing gum that holds all these gaps together is the mysterious Alejandro. He’s our smooth-talking, fatherly rogue with a sympathetic heart of hydrofluoric acid. Oh, what a guy. The wonderful thing about Alejandro is that he seems to genuinely care for people, even as he shoots them at point-blank range. He is highly trained at what he does (an extremely long list) which makes him frighteningly dangerous, but the way he interacts with Kate and Reggie separates him from the arrogant pack that is the rest of Matt’s team. Benicio Del Toro is magnificent in this role. I often felt that we see too little of him on screen – which is kind of the point since, as I mentioned, we’re meant to be kept in the dark.
Across from him, Emily Blunt lights up the stage in a whole different way. She obviously had to dig deep down to a frightening place to tap into Kate’s emotions. She portrays strong, introverted, curious, lustful, impatient, frightened, etc. When Kate is strong she dodges bullets and knocks down walls. When she is scared her body language completely changes and withers in upon itself. Kate’s impressive range of emotions over these few short days puts her in a completely opposite category from Alejandro’s quiet, soothing nature.
Behind Sicario’s secrets is a room-shaking soundtrack that sounds like Jaws choking on a tuba. No Alexandre Desplat here, just WHOAM WHOAM WHOOOOAAAM. Poetry. It matches Sicario’s ground-zero-effect action that Kate is exposed to, including explosions, gunfire, and explicit attempted murders. Since we follow Kate from start to finish, Sicario puts the audience right in the middle of the action, arranging the camera to make us feel detached or far too close to this messed up world.
I did not feel like conquering the universe when I walked out of Sicario. I felt pretty close to how Kate probably feels throughout most of the film: alone, cheated, lost, and for the most part, terrifyingly abysmal. Kate’s questions are our questions, but when she comes to a conclusion in her head we don’t always get to hear the answers. There are a few realization moments that bring Sicario into focus, but too few and way too far between. It’s dark. It’s creatively and horrifically violent. It’s silkily well-acted. It’s a 6/10.