Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario (2015) is a chilling and powerful thriller. Here are 4 reasons why the film is great.
From their cuisine to their music and colorful art, Mexico’s culture and way of life can be beautiful and inspiring. Its people are some of the most hardworking individuals you’ll ever meet, valuing family above anything else. The country’s history is rich and vivid; it’s almost impossible not to love the place, whether you’re a local or a tourist. Yet, unfortunately, such beauty is often overshadowed by horrific crimes that seem endless. An issue Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario seeks to discuss is how a country’s history of violence can affect the human soul.
Drug cartels and entertainment don’t always mix. You can run the risk of portraying the issue with offensive stereotypes or romanticizing individuals on both sides: Those stopping organized crime and those committing the crimes. It’s a tricky line to walk through. Few storytellers today have the skill to approach the topic with a nuanced eye rather than a tone-deaf one. Villeneuve’s Sicario is a prime example of how to tackle such a concept with the sensitivity it deserves.
Sicario revolves around a woman named Kate Macer (Emily Blunt, Oppenheimer), whose soul is put to the test following the foul violence she experiences after being assigned to a special anti-drugs task force across the U.S.-Mexican border. Her superior officer, Matt Graver (Josh Brolin, Dune), exposes her to the brutality of the drug cartels with the help of a defector from the organization, Alejandro (Benicio del Toro, The French Dispatch). He possesses keen information about the cartels, revealing the corruption within the U.S. agency to find its leaders. Kate’s moral boundaries are pushed to their limit as she realizes the officers’ methods could prove illegal and immoral.
Let’s take a look at 4 reasons why Sicario is such a great film.
1. Battle of Ideologies Between Morally Gray Characters
Sicario is allowed to be powerful because of characters like Matt and Kate. Villeneuve isn’t interested in a “good vs. bad” narrative. He’s fascinated by the morally gray characters that plague Taylor Sheridan’s script. Here’s where our leads’ ideologies intersect. Matt doesn’t want an immediate solution to the drug war, he just wants to control it for the time being because those are his orders from the top. Kate does actually want to bring members of the cartels to justice by following the law, but she’s constantly told the law is meaningless in this conflict.
On a technical standpoint, they’re fighting for a “good cause,” but Villeneuve paints a cruel reality. One where his characters are driven to act like the people they are trying to stop. As a viewer, you’re disturbed by the way Matt tends to downplay the conflict in Mexico. He isn’t fazed by what he sees, everything’s a joke to him. Going on deadly missions is a walk in the park and torturing gang members is a game, despite criticizing the cartels for doing the same.
Matt’s relation to control clashes with Kate’s relation to justice because he believes she lacks the stomach to do what must be done. As the mission grows dangerous with every encounter, Kate is faced with the possibility of a broken system and justice not being enough. Her journey begins discovering bodies inside a home’s walls and moves to Mexico, witnessing more atrocious crimes against human lives. Kate is constantly trying to do the right thing, and in return, she’s punished or silenced. This battle of ideologies shows the complexity of the border issue and does an excellent job at engaging you thematically, emotionally, and from a character perspective.
Alejandro gets his own section separate from Matt and Kate because he is the film’s best example of a morally gray character. If Matt represents control and Kate justice, then Alejandro would be revenge, as he searches for the men responsible for his family’s murder. Villeneuve portrays him as two things: A ruthless killer with a tortured history, as well as a mentor. In a sense, he embraces the parental figure, or that of an older brother, to Kate by warning her of what’s ahead and protecting her in some instances, all due to her reminding him of his daughter.
Yet, as we approach Sicario’s climax and Alejandro’s real motives unfold, he does not hesitate to hurt Kate when she gets in his way. She might be the first human connection Alejandro has made in years, but revenge is his priority. A lesser film would glorify Alejandro’s thirst for revenge, treating it as a redemption arc. Villeneuve does not do this; he shows him for what he is: A broken man seeking to inflict the same pain that he has endured for years on others. It’s not about his family, revenge brings no satisfaction to Alejandro nor to the audience: it’s all about violence.
If you were to read a copy of Sicario’s original script, you’d see the level of restraint Villeneuve brought to the project. Villeneuve and del Toro cut approximately 90% of Alejandro’s dialogue and overall role. We were supposed to flashback to his family’s murder, but that’s not present in the final cut. Villeneuve and del Toro, as visual storytellers, understand less is more. By keeping Alejandro’s backstory in the shadows, you make him a more intriguing character to follow than if we knew everything about him.
3. Building Tension on the Border
Throughout his filmography, Villeneuve has shown to be a master at creating tension in a way only giants like Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, and Steven Spielberg, among others, have accomplished. This fact is particularly relevant to Sicario. He brings the most out of his actors, composer, cinematographer, and whole crew to produce a movie that portrays the unsettling violence committed by both sides of the border. Violent acts that feed one another instead of putting an end to the war against drugs, and that are separated merely by a border wall. All of this is the basis for Sicario’s intricate tension, which Villeneuve carefully sets up in the first act.
Kate, a female lead who hopes to follow the rules, becomes the audience’s eyes and ears. Roger Deakins’ photography juxtaposes this magnificently throughout the film, particularly during the sequence in Juarez, Mexico. As our characters drive through town in their imposing SUVs, the camera never forgets to stay close to Kate and tends to reveal subjects from within the vehicle. Bodies hanging off bridges become horrifying due to the sinking feeling in your stomach that Kate must be feeling. We react similarly to her because we are thrown into the world of violence alongside Kate, and this technique to reveal violent acts by Deakins is present from start to finish and furthers Villeneuve’s ability to build tension.
These elements are elevated by Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score too. Denis Villeneuve has compared Sicario’s musical themes to those of John Williams’ work in Jaws. What makes Jaws’ score so memorable is that it doesn’t so much feel like music as it feels like an environmental sound. Williams’ themes are directly connected to the sea and the shark, instantly building tension when you hear his score because you know danger is ahead. Jóhannsson’s hauntingly beautiful score works similarly, perfectly capturing Kate’s tense demeanor during her time in Juarez and the operation as a whole. His music makes you feel uncomfortable with the rising distorted crescendo the cellos create.
This intimidating theme is present throughout to communicate the weight of the violence committed in the film. Without Jóhannsson’s score, the deeply shocking imagery Deakins shows the audience would not be as impactful. The performances by the lead actors benefit from the score as well, since the music and photography set the tone and atmosphere, making it easier for us to connect with the characters emotionally. For these reasons, Sicario’s thrilling tension simply works. As a director, it’d be easy to lose control over these components, but Villeneuve gives each aspect their moments to shine. They work together to build tension and end up complementing one another, rather than overshadowing the other.
4. Silvio and the Dehumanization of War
Denis Villeneuve and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan avoid portraying every member of the drug cartels as villainous by allowing the audience to follow the daily life of a corrupt Mexican cop named Silvio (Maximiliano Hernandez, Avengers: Endgame). At first glance, this may seem unnecessary, as the rest of the movie would play out the same without a problem if this storyline didn’t exist. What this adds to Sicario is sympathy you wouldn’t otherwise get for the other side.
You hear about corrupt police and politicians all the time, and one’s first thought is that they turn corrupt due to greed or seeking power. This is so commonly portrayed in films it has become a cliché of the crime genre. Sicario switches it up by presenting a corrupt individual as a victim. We never learn Silvio’s motivations for his actions, though Villeneuve plants seeds of his tragic journey through Joe Walker’s editing. Walker shows the audience enough to come up with their conclusions regarding Silvio.
He starts his mornings with breakfast and a cup of coffee containing alcohol. Silvio loves his son, even if he is distant at times, though loses his temper when his kid expresses interest in Silvio’s guns. His reaction isn’t that of a man who takes pride in his vocation. It’s the reaction of somebody who is deeply traumatized and resents his actions. Silvio’s story, in theory, isn’t crucial to the movie’s narrative, but it deepens the powerful themes explored by Villeneuve and Sheridan: People who do the wrong thing aren’t always bad, and those who view themselves as good don’t always do the right thing. War hurts everyone, including decent people like Silvio who is forced to take part in it because his life depends on it.
Sicario is not about good or bad, it is about the lengths human beings are willing to go to when trying to do the right thing and are consumed by the darkest human instincts. How do you fight a war that perhaps has been long lost? Do you reduce yourself to the same playing field as those you are trying to stop? If so, what does that do to your cause? Where do you draw the line?
Sicario stays with you because of how direct it is with its message. We’re capable of great good as human beings, just as we’re capable of great violence. Matt and Alejandro take down a kingpin of the drug business, getting what they want in the process, until a new head of the cartel replaces the old one. The violence Kate endures leaves her utterly disillusioned with the system she serves. Following Silvio’s death at the hands of Alejandro, his family is left dealing with his loss and are forced to tolerate more violence than usual as a result of the U.S. operation led by Matt. It’s a never-ending cycle. One that is as harsh as it is powerful.
Sicario is now available to watch on digital and on demand. Read our list of Denis Villeneuve’s 5 best films, ranked from worst to best!