Daily | Cannes 2015 | Denis Villeneuve’s SICARIO


Emily Blunt in ‘Sicario’

“The violence of the inter-American drug trade has served as the backdrop for any number of films for more than three decades, but few have been as powerful and superbly made as Sicario,” declares the Hollywood Reporter‘s Todd McCarthy. “Drenched in many shades of ambiguity as it dramatizes a complex U.S.-led effort to take out a major Mexican drug lord south of the border, Denis Villeneuve’s intensely physical new work is no less disturbing than his previous features Prisoners and Incendies… An opening note explains that ‘sicario’ is cartel slang for hitman, derived from a term dating to ancient Jerusalem describing hunters of Romans. Loosely used, it’s a word that could apply to almost every character in this tense tale.”

“Did Denis Villeneuve just take Michael Mann’s crown?” asks the Guardian‘s Peter Bradshaw. “Emily Blunt looks a little fancifully cast, at first, as the FBI field agent Kate Macy. She’s seen first as part of a huge raid against a Mexican cartel safe house within US territory, not far from Phoenix, Arizona—a raid which discloses a situation of pure horror. But Blunt’s performance has an edge of steel. She brings off a mix of confidence, bewilderment and vulnerability, which functions very well against the alpha male characters higher up the chain of command.” There’s Matt, “played by Josh Brolin, whose swaggeringly cynical manner irritates and disconcerts Kate considerably, and an associate of his—Alejandro, played by Benicio Del Toro, who is utterly calm, blank, but suppressing the trauma of an earlier situation which has nonetheless given him the expertise and motivation to work on this one. The whole thing is not so much like Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic—it is closer to The Silence of the Lambs.”

For Variety‘s Scott Foundas, “the opening of Sicario unfolds at such an anxiety-inducing pitch that it seems impossible for Villeneuve to sustain it, let along build on it, but somehow he manages to do just that. He’s a master of the kind of creeping tension that coils around the audience like a snake suffocating its prey…. As in the films of Clint Eastwood (whose Mystic River exuded an obvious influence on Prisoners) and Michael Mann, the violence in Villeneuve’s work is savage and startling, but never overstated or sensationalized… Navigating the crossfire, Blunt is mesmerizing to watch… Every bit as impressive is Del Toro… And as the film hurtles towards its climactic abyss, it is Del Toro who holds us rapt with a nearly silent performance that is the very embodiment of character through action.”

“The craft is impeccable,” grants Jessica Kiang at the Playlist, “with Roger Deakins‘s cinematography and the spectacular Jóhann Jóhannsson score, with its memorable four-descending-note motif… conspiring to add levels of interest that keep you hungry for the next scene. But it’s a hunger never wholly satisfied.”

“There’s not much fault to find with Sicario on the level of craft or performances, just its rather sputtering momentum, and the lack of a higher purpose,” finds the Telegraph‘s Tim Robey. “It’s admirable that the film’s taking its subject seriously; it’s just not enough. Actor-turned-scribe Taylor Sheridan spells his points out too rhetorically about the desperate measures being demanded by the Mexico problem… The film’s too cramped in its argument, lacking the networked, op-ed-prompting sprawl of a Traffic or a Syriana.”

“This is rock-solid, up-scale filmmaking,” argues Screen‘s Fionnuala Halligan. Interviews with Villeneuve: Jeff Heinrich (Guardian) and Gregg Kilday and Etan Vlessing (Hollywood Reporter).

Updates, 5/20: Scanning the first reviews, Mike D’Angelo, writing for the Dissolve finds that “almost nobody, at least so far, appears to be acknowledging how radically subversive this film is—not so much in terms of its politics (though its worldview is cynical enough to alienate many humanist-minded viewers), but in the way it blithely torpedoes the most basic rules of audience identification. Imagine a version of Training Day in which Ethan Hawke’s character remains just as horrified by what he witnesses, but can do absolutely nothing about it…. Passive protagonists are almost always a bad idea, but Kate’s involuntary passivity, as boldly conceived by actor-turned-screenwriter Taylor Sheridan, has a potent strategic purpose, and it’s counterbalanced by Blunt’s steely intensity and by Villeneuve’s deft tightening of the screws.”

“Even as he borrows from other movies’ hellish visions—some of the most arresting imagery here feels lifted from Amat Escalante’s 2013 Cannes winner Heli—Villeneuve knows how to overwhelm his audience,” writes Guy Lodge for Time Out. “That panicked pitch, however, is tough to sustain across two hours of beautifully wrought moral turpitude that nonetheless doesn’t contain many stunning revelations.”

“With each film, Denis Villeneuve proves his talent for crafting extremely effective visceral spectacles, ensnaring the viewer through expert engineering of mood and action,” writes Giovanni Marchini Camia at the Film Stage. “Yet, with each film, he undermines his achievement by attempting to aggrandize his narratives with weighty undercurrents that are, in fact, desperately vacuous. While Sicario is no exception, unlike the insufferably pretentious Enemy, it delivers a constant, exhilarating stream of elaborate and exquisitely photographed thrills that ends up largely compensating for the would-be profundity.”

“Blunt is exceptional here, exercising the trigger finger she first itched in Looper and later Edge of Tomorrow while effortlessly conveying the kind of emotionally exhausting internal conflict that saw Jessica Chastain bag herself an Oscar nomination for Kathryn Bigelow’s superior procedural, Zero Dark Thirty,” writes Adam Woodward at Little White Lies. “Yet Taylor Sheridan’s debut script—which has its merits—doesn’t do her many favors.” And “it’s the positioning of Blunt as the film’s unerring moral center that is most problematic. Although Kate is shown to be as strong as she is vulnerable, we’re repeatedly told that this is a man’s world…, and as such any ostensible hint of the kind of gender role subversion that would have made for a more interesting dynamic is quickly extinguished.”

More from Donald Clarke (Irish Times), Gregory Ellwood (HitFix), Jason Gorber (Twitch), Eric Kohn (Indiewire, B-), Richard Lawson (Vanity Fair), Barbara Scharres (, Anne Thompson and Marc van de Klashorst (International Cinephile Society). And for the Hollywood Reporter, Carolyn Giardina talks with editor Joe Walker.

Updates, 5/22: “Villeneuve’s style is portentous, all shadowy stares and atmosphere, glistening black SUVs moving across an arid landscape dominated by a wide expanse of sky,” writes Ignatiy Vishnevetsky at the AV Club. “He directs Sicario as though it were a horror film—an impression underscored by an opening sequence that finds Kate and her team stumbling upon a house full of corpses wrapped in sheets of plastic. In the end, that baseline physical revulsion—decapitated bodies, corpses hung from highway overpasses, arms blown off by booby traps—turns to moral horror. Perhaps not as powerfully as one would wish, but it still leaves an impression and a black-coffee aftertaste.”

“The one saving grace of Sicario,” finds James Lattimer at the House Next Door, “is the considerable talent of cinematographer Roger Deakins, who continually finds new, striking images to couch all the action in: breathtaking aerial shots that fittingly transform the border zone into some hugely elaborate model, the green-tinged night-vision shots that accompany the team taking over a cartel tunnel, the impenetrable sea of dust a bomb blast carries in its wake. Yet such atmospherics are stymied again and again by Villeneuve’s need to hold the audience’s hand.”

“There’s a case to be made that this overblown, one-dimensional movie is about sexism within the government’s elite defense and law-enforcement agencies,” suggests Grantland‘s Wesley Morris. “The filmmakers tried to assert as much in a round of post-screening interviews and press conferences. But no one involved with Sicario, which refers to a Latin American term for assassin, is interested in unpacking that argument—or in exploring life in Juarez, either. The cutaways to Mexico focusing on a cop and his son are just trying trying to outdo Alejandro González Iñárritu. It’s easier to brutalize, humiliate, and exploit these characters. With Blunt, the line between representing institutional sexism and the movie’s own misogyny is nonexistent.”

“Villeneuve very much wants to tell us how corrupt our government agencies are and how muddled the line between good and bad is,” writes Tim Grierson for Paste. “But more often than not, his message doesn’t come across as shocking or despairing—merely self-congratulatory in its world-weary cynicism. Sicario wants to salute our ability to read a newspaper.”

For the BBC’s Nicholas Barber, Sicario‘s “deliberate pacing and simple characterization make it seem as if it never quite gets going. And there is nothing in it you haven’t seen before.” For Ioncinema‘s Nicholas Bell, “Sicario feels too hollow.”

Updates, 5/27: For Buzzfeed‘s Alison Willmore, “the movie’s underlying cynicism doesn’t come off as profound so much as overly dour, especially when a character is advised to move away to a small town where the rule of law still applies, provoking a viewer to think, this person lives in Phoenix. Sicario is, nevertheless, gorgeously made, with a set piece taking place in tunnels underneath the border that conveys chaos without ever looking incoherent.”

Writing for the L, Glenn Heath Jr. argues that “Sicario has nothing fresh to say about how Mexico’s drug war will inevitably have long-term implications for the United States. Villeneuve simply suggests that America’s only protective measure is to become just as ugly, murderous, and brutal as the cartels themselves, a pitiless and debilitating message.”

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