‘Sicario’ movie review: Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin in Denis Villeneuve’s cartel thriller

In Mexico, Sicario means hitman, the opening title scrawl of director Denis Villeneuve’s latest film tells us. We’ll learn the relevance of the title (or lack thereof) by the end of the movie.

I’m a sucker for the subject matter: as bodies pile up along the US/Mexico border, the stories of the Mexican drug cartels, law enforcement on both sides of the border, and the innocent lives that get caught up along the way would seem to make great fodder for Hollywood.

And yet, to go along with a general sense of under-reporting in the mainstream US media (considering the proximity to the situation alone), there are few US movies that deal with the topic, and the ones that do are generally dismissed. Ridley Scott and Cormac McCarthy’s The Counselor, detested as it was, is one of my favorite films of the last 15 years.

In the matter of Sicario, my feelings are split. It’s a half-noble but also half-naïve thing. Just like its protagonist.

I had the same reaction to the director’s previous film, Prisoners, which many seemed to like more than I did. Credit where credit is due: Villeneuve is incredibly gifted at conducting scenes of suspense and tension, perfectly setting up the basics and then masterfully manipulating his audience. But like that film, I just wish he had a better script here.

There’s a 20-minute sequence during the first half of Sicario that represents a near-perfect, Hitchcock-level piece of pure filmmaking. It’s a theme park ride type of thing across the border and through the streets of Juarez that generates an unrelenting buildup of tension and then reaches a nail-biting traffic jam climax.

If the whole movie is this good, I thought, it’ll be one of the best things I’ve seen all year.

Sicario stars Emily Blunt as Kate Macer, an FBI agent who deals with the drug trade on the US side of the border. In the film’s opening scene, her team discovers a wall full of bodies in a suburban Arizona home before an explosive detonates and kills two officers.

Kate is primed to go after the people responsible, making her a good mark for recruitment by shady government operative Matt Graver (Josh Brolin). She volunteers for an operation that will target the real bad guys, even though she has no information as to the specifics of the operation. Along for the ride is the mysterious Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) whose connection to the operation is initially unclear.

“Just watch and learn,” Graver tells Kate. We have little idea what’s going on when a convoy of SUVs takes her and a team of well-armed agents from El Paso to Juarez, and that helps to build the tension: picking up bits and pieces through radio chatter and glimpses of happenings outside the SUV windows, we slowly get a grasp on the situation. 

Villeneuve is a pro at choreographing these scenes, using tight editing techniques and all sorts of camera angles, including overhead drone footage: while we don’t know what’s going on story-wise, we’re always aware of where the characters are in relation to each other, and what elements are in play at any given time. It’s a master-class in filmmaking. 

Unfortunately, the rest of the film can’t match it. During the film’s climactic scene, we know what’s going on plot-wise yet the intricate details of who is where and what they’re doing get lost; Villeneuve’s filmmaking gifts abandon him in the constrained corridors of an underground drug cave.

More on that: the final mission, where Kate gets all hot and bothered now that she knows the real score, seems to rely on an awful lot of coincidence and seemingly impossible planning. Two entirely separate storylines seem to come to a head for no apparent reason. Why, for example, doesn’t Del Toro’s character do what he was going to do without going through that cave?

Halfway through the film, there’s another unforgivable coincidence: Kate (and the audience) identifies a character as corrupt due to the presence of a rainbow armband that we saw earlier binding wads of dirty cash. But there’s no reason for this character to have the armband (he’s not even wearing it, he’s just carrying it in his pocket) and you wouldn’t really think the cartels would have their own branded armbands, anyway.

That’s a minor complaint, and I think there’s enough sturm und drang along with the climactic scenes to distract most viewers from the small details I got hung up on. But I think many, like me, will want to slap Blunt’s protagonist. Knowing all she knows about the reality of this situation, must she insist on doing things by the damn book? 

Watch Sicario for the pure filmmaking in its first half, and the general overview it gives to a terrifying scenario that isn’t just playing out south of the US border. You might be more forgiving towards some of the film’s weaker story elements than me.


Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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