Sicario confirms Denis Villeneuve as one the best horror filmmakers going today, says MacDara Conroy
Denis Villeneuve’s latest arrives at a high time for the narco-thriller. It’s a revival arguably made cool by that little show with yer man from Malcolm in the Middle, but the grittier likes of new Netflix series Narcos – retelling the story of larger-than-life drug kingpin Pablo Escobar – dispel any quasi-romantic, aspirational notions. Make no mistake about it: the Mexican drug war is a dirty, bloody business, where executions and disappearances are endemic. There’s no Tony Montana gangster melodrama bullshit about cold-blooded mass murderers who operate in a moral negative zone that’s really no country for old men.
FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) and her team get their first real glimpse into that void when a routine drug bust at a suburban home in the Arizona desert reveals a veritable house of horrors. The discovery puts her on the radar of Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), a sandal-wearing government ‘adviser’ with a similarly shady, rumple-suited tagalong (Benicio Del Toro), who persuades Macer to sign up for a special joint-agency team tasked with catching the bigger fish. But the idealist is soon in over her head, as she realises that the war with the drug cartels is a lot more complicated than good guys versus bad guys, and both sides are willing to go to any length to achieve their objectives.
Thematically, Sicario – named after a Mexican slang term for ‘hitman’ – covers similar ground to the morally dubious kidnapping mystery Prisoners in its musings on ends justifying means. But while that film makes as many excuses as condemnations for its protagonists’ extreme responses to extreme conditions, Villeneuve’s message in Sicario is much clearer: whatever we think of the rights or wrongs, the chilling fact is that these things are happening regardless, and there’s pretty much nothing we can do about it. There’s true horror in that idea of a world without justice or natural order. Or maybe it’s an order we simply don’t understand. “Chaos is order yet undeciphered,” as goes the quote at the front of Villeneuve’s previous film Enemy.
And that leads me to the most remarkable thing about this picture. Forget its marketing as a crime thriller, as Sicario – like the Cronenberg-referencing Enemy, and indeed Prisoners and war trauma drama Incendies – is really a horror film. It’s as much in the chest-tightening tension of the story itself (written by Sons of Anarchy cast member Taylor Sheridan) as it is in composer Jóhann Jóhannsson’s intense sound design, like a deafening rush of blood in the ears that rarely relents, and in cinematographer Roger Deakin’s heat-damaged frames, from eye-scratching sharpness to bleeding skies to claustrophobia-inducing close-ups, recalling his work for the Coen Brothers’ own borderlands chiller.
There are imperfections – Blunt’s character is a bit too slow on the uptake at times, letting the audience get a step ahead, while the plot frays into a slightly befuddling mess of strands towards its denouement – but they really don’t detract from the fact that Sicario confirms Denis Villeneuve as one the best horror filmmakers going today.