Near the beginning of Sicario, the brutal, unrelenting film by Denis Villeneuve, Josh Brolin says to Emily Blunt, “You’ll understand everything by the end.” Of course, Blunt is a stand-in for the audience–she’s an FBI agent who has volunteered for a cross-agency mission that has something to do with Mexican cartels, but she knows nothing about why she’s there or what’s she’s supposed to do.
Taylor Sheridan’s script and Villeneuve’s direction leads Blunt on an Alice-down-the-rabbit-hole-type trip into the world of shadow investigations. As she is told by her higher-up, “These are decisions from on high. From people who are elected to office, not appointed.” But Blunt struggles to maintain her integrity and lawfulness, even when she has a gun pointed at her head.
Sicario is a very good film, but not a great one, and I think the problem is that Villeneuve builds the film around Blunt, when the real star of the film is Benicio Del Toro as a mysterious operative who is part of her team. In fact, the movie leaves Blunt behind at the climax when Del Toro takes over, which is an odd thing to do when Blunt has been set up as the heroine of the piece.
The film opens with Blunt making a grim discovery at a tract house in a suburb of Phoenix. This attracts the attention of Brolin, who is probably CIA, though we never know for sure. Brolin appeals to her sentimentality to get her to volunteer on a mission to bring back the brother of a cartel leader from Juarez to the U.S., even though the legality is highly questionable. Blunt is like a person at a party where she knows no one, even when gunfire breaks out in a traffic jam at the border.
She will question Brolin at every turn, and though she comes to admire Del Toro, never trusts him. Eventually her questions, and ours, will be answered, and it’s not a feel good story.
Del Toro is terrific in a very low-key performance. Brolin is also fine in a kind of role that sort of represents the American way–a cowboy/surfer type who wears flip-flops to the office and knows the ugly truth of things. Blunt, however, is a problem, not only in the script but the performance as well. I’ve yet to see the greatness of Blunt in any role, but here she is too slight to be playing a kick-ass FBI agent. I know there are many female agents, but I think they probably look a lot more like Ronda Rousey than Blunt, who doesn’t have much in the way of muscle tone. She played a similar role in Edge of Tomorrow, which I didn’t see. I think she works better in romantic comedies.
Sicario left me a little devastated, despite my misgivings. The photography by Roger Deakins is, yet again, stunning. He does more with twilight than any other cinematographer I know, and there is a sequence at the end, when the U.S. agents infiltrate a tunnel between the U.S. and Mexico, in which night goggles are used to great effect. Maybe this is the year he will win an Oscar.