Violence is ubiquitous in our culture and our entertainment. In particular, violence is a staple in my own diet of films, TV and video games. So it’s natural to become inured to a certain extent. I don’t mean inured to violence itself, which still sickens and frightens me, but inured to its depiction in popular culture.
Sicario is an impressive film for a number of reasons, but for me the most notable was that it consistently created an atmosphere of palpable fear and dread that is highly unusual in modern entertainment. Although the film is framed as a thriller or politico-action film, for me it had, in part, the quality of the best and most fearsome horror films.
The only thing I can compare it to that I’ve watched recently was the episode of True Detective in which Rust goes undercover with racist bikers while they attempt to stick-up a drugs den in a black ghetto. Sicario has several scenes with the same sickening atmosphere of physical violence and impending disaster. It’s not a pleasant feeling, for sure, but it is very impactful and certainly a triumph of storytelling and cinematography.
It is important that Sicario does this, because in doing so it does justice (if that’s the right word) to the horror of the cartel conflicts and atrocities that blight areas of Mexico especially the border city of Juarez. For all the depictions of real-world violence on our TV and cinema screens it is rare to find an example which actually feels like it is truthful to the reality. There’s a good reason for this, of course, because the reality is too shocking. But, in parts, Sicario does a very effective job of interpreting real-world horror for us. What’s scarier than that?
The sense of horror is deepened by the score, which at times felt like it could have been borrowed from a conventional horror film; but it wasn’t overdone. Similarly, the film showcased a quite remarkable turn by Benicio Del Toro. He plays an unutterably creepy character who is seen or implied to be responsible for appalling acts of violence; but who at times gets disturbingly close to feeling sympathetic. It’s a fine balance and is only maintained because Del Toro plays the role with a deft touch. It is very compelling to watch, and it’s no wonder there are reports of a spin-off film in the works centred around this role. In contrast, early on I was worried that Josh Brolin’s CIA agent would descend far into cliche territory as a slobbish CIA ‘maverick’, but fortunately this aspect of the film was reigned in as it progressed.
Perhaps the weakest part of the film, for me, was the central character and partial audience avatar, Kate (Emily Blunt, of whom I’m actually a big fan). Kate’s role is dramatically necessary as an ‘outsider’ to the drug war, as otherwise the atrocities that go on would just seem ‘normal’ to everyone in the film. The film has to have someone speaking out against the horror. That said, the strength of Kate’s reservations about the black ops against the cartel seemed excessive: Kate wouldn’t be in this position in the first place if she didn’t ‘know the score’ and show a willingness to, essentially, break the law for a chance against the drug barons. This felt incongruous, as if the film was searching for a good guy in a story where there are no good guys, period.
I must say I was surprised by how effective and bold a movie Sicario was. If anything, it should be better in a home viewing than it was at the cinema: at home the thick sense of dread the film creates won’t be interrupted by people looking at their phones and what-not. Can’t wait!