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Sicario: A dark and restrained portrait of America

By Isaac Rosso Klakovich

Director Denis Villeneuve has always been praised for his sharp and bitter portrayal of reality, and that praise has continued to come his way after the release of his latest film “Sicario.” This film uses its setting of the current drug war in Mexico to draw a disturbing portrait of the evil that lives in today’s world, especially within US borders.

“Sicario” tells the story of F.B.I. agent Kate Macy (Emily Blunt) who joins a government task force lead by Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) that is trying to take out a Mexican drug lord with the help of trained killer Alejandro, (Benicio Del Toro). This sounds like the setup for a heavy handed and uninspired political commentary, yet it is anything but that. The film is more concerned with depicting the tragic and disparaging nature of the situation and letting its themes manifest through the story it is telling.

Emily Blunt (in black) in an early scene from "Sicario"
Emily Blunt (in black) in an early scene from “Sicario”

To convey this utter lack of hope, Villeneuve utilizes many methods, the most effective of which being the use of graphic violence. While many films have the problem of indulging in violence, Villeneuve presents violence as an intense and grave subject that isn’t to be taken lightly. He gives each death the same weight as the last to create one of the more depressing viewings of the year. The epitome of this technique is in the first scene, which takes place in a drug house. After a gunshot blows a hole in a wall, it is clear that there is something hidden within it and while it looks to be drugs, it turns out to be a body in a clear body bag. Villeneuve then shows the audience that there are 42 more bodies in the walls of this house, illustrating the true evil that exists in the world of the cartel. Then Villeneuve does something almost unheard of, showing the characters outside the house vomiting. Never do we see characters so powerless to the events of a film, bringing a sense of gravity that is maintained throughout. Villenueve’s innovation makes what could have been a brainless genre film into a well-crafted drama.

Cinematographer Roger Deakins uses stark contrasts in "Sicario"
Cinematographer Roger Deakins uses stark contrasts in “Sicario”

Also bringing weight to the film is the cinematography done by the masterful Roger Deakins. As he has done throughout his career, in particularly with his recent efforts in “Prisoners” and “Skyfall,” Deakins proves that he is unmatched while working with contrasts. Whether through their black cars or black uniforms, the agents constantly stick out in this vast and pale landscape. Having them so small compared to these landscapes emphasizes that this problem is much bigger than they are, and can’t be solved by merely taking out one drug lord.

The film makes it clear that unless people stop buying drugs there will always be violence and people will continue to die. The darkest part of this is the film’s portrayal of the government as perfectly content with mitigation and unwilling to solve the core problem. The task force’s main goal is to kill one one drug lord, which will only lessen the problem for the Americans, and not get to the core issues that affect the people of Mexico. In other words, Villeneuve is saying that true evil is watching indecencies take place and not doing anything about it.

Official poster for "Sicario"
Official poster for “Sicario”

Villeneuve doesn’t stop at depicting what evil is, as he makes the film a cautionary tale of what can happen if evil is allowed to prosper. By the end of the film, it is clear that there becomes a time at which evil is so tightly woven into society that there is no good that can undo it. While this is a pessimistic look at where America is heading, Villeneuve’s astute filmmaking makes it seem completely real. Especially with his final shot of kids playing soccer to a symphony of gunshots. This shot, while small in scale, has haunting implications of the future that will stick with viewers long after they leave the theater.

Rating: 4/4 stars

Photos Courtesy of: fiordlandcinema.co.nz, canvas.grolsch.com, and slate.com

 

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