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Movie Review: Sicario (2015)

17 October 2015 | Features, Reviews | by Shane Scott-Travis

sicario 2015 movie review

“Nothing will make sense to your American ears, and you will doubt everything we tell you,” intones Alejandro (Benicio del Toro) gravely, “but in the end you will understand.” A former prosecutor, now an inscrutable consultant for an elite U.S. governmental task force, Alejandro uses a quiet, almost ataractic emphasis as he speaks to Kate Mercer (Emily Blunt), the wide-eyed and honorable newcomer in Québécois filmmaker Denis Villeneuve’s (Enemy) latest film, the tightly drawn thriller Sicario.

Fraught with suspense and fear-mongering both accurate and embellished, Sicario is gritty and provocative with the hard-edged and high-minded seriousness of Villeneuve’s previous storied work, like Prisoners (2013) and Incendies (2010), with all the flash and élan vital we’ve come to expect from him.

A frequently ferocious methodical picture, mega-charged with realism not just in its meticulous detail but also in its scale. Hardly ever does a female-led American crime thriller of this esteem and sprawl come along, and Blunt is exceptional, carrying the film and offering a sharp and scrupulous sensitivity.

A divorcee, Kate is dedicated and resilient, she runs a kidnap response team that’s suddenly sucked into a vortex of viciously warring Mexican drug cartels when a raid in an Arizona suburb uncovers 42 dead bodies and a baited-trap explosive that kills two officers. It’s a bravura opening sequence that faultlessly wheedles the audience into Kate’s position while espousing the first in a rather pointed and prescient political commentary on American imperialism, drug warring, and policing.

Kate’s conduct and track record has her boss, David Jennings (Victor Garber), commending her to a CIA Special Activities Division officer, the mussed and macho Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) who runs a black-ops – in flip-flops – and soon she’s his new recruit. “What’s our objective?” Kate asks Matt, not long into their professional relationship, and he matter-of-factly responds: “To dramatically overreact.” The brusque restraint in his voice is palpable.

Matt’s partner is a soft-spoken former prosecutor now a careful malcontent named Alejandro Gillick, and del Toro plays him nuanced and intense, a tormented figure who is utterly compelling.

Shortly after Alejandro appears in the film we witness him shaken by night terrors, and much later in the film, during a deadly and diligent knock-down-drag-out, a corrupt Mexican police officer timorously refers to him as “Medellín”. Alejandro is an equivocal figure, and his Delphian backstory comes at us unhurriedly, provoking and compelling as it unknots itself.


Sicaro boasts a meaty supporting cast as well, including Daniel Kaluuya (Kick-Ass 2) as Kate’s partner, Reggie, and Jon Bernthal (The Wolf of Wall Street) as Reggie’s somewhat suspicious friend, Ted, bolstering the sophisticated entertainment that certainly offers no shortage of awards-caliber material.

Visually arresting, Sicario teases a hard, washed-out look that teems with realistic sophistication and immediacy courtesy of champion cinematographer Roger Deakins (No Country For Old Men, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford). This is Deakins’ second film with Villeneuve, after Prisoners, and they are slated to work together on the forthcoming Blade Runner sequel, and they compliment one another incredibly well.

Deakins, who’s been shafted by the Academy Awards his whole career – he’s lensed a dozen Coen brothers films, for starters – might at long last acquire the Oscar that has alluded him for his breathtaking work here. It’s a ravishing, savagely beautiful spectacle with superb visuals.

One of several soaring action set pieces in Sicario involves a nocturnal tunnel sequence that obtains a mythic Orphean quality that subtly places Kate in a Eurydice-like position. It’s tempting to suggest that this perpetuity is wholly of Villeneuve’s invention, it feels in keeping with his wily milieu and not necessarily of screenwriter Taylor Sheridan’s contrivance. Sheridan’s script, while meticulously crafted in places, is comprised of numerous clichés (the rookie cop angle is well-mined and one character’s motives wind up being, somewhat disappointingly, a revenge sortie boilerplate), but Villeneuve’s striking vision and Blunt’s ferocious cynosure more than compensates for any see-through shibboleth.


Sicario, which is Spanish for hitman, frequently places its sharply observed characters in peril, increasingly engulfed in ever-threatening surroundings frequently resulting in shocking and unnerving verisimilitude. A firefight with cartel thugs at the Bridge of the Americas, where hundreds of civilians lives are jeopardized, is nerve-racking, particularly for Kate, who more and more views her fellow American lawmen as militant, jingoistic, and churning sadists eating their own spiny tails.

Sicario, for better or worse, is unrelenting in its depiction of danger and destructiveness in the underworld it depicts, and generously avoids sermonizing.

Absent through much of the film is the seductively beautiful world imaged in drug-cartel films like Blow or Scarface although some of the same dangers that lurk in those films are present here, too, including pessimism and potential exhaustion, but this is tempered by a tense rhythm and a potentially explosive payoff. As far as the drug-cartel sub-genre goes, this is expressly the new yardstick.

Ultimately this isn’t the sort of film that outright offers redemption for its broken characters, instead they come to understand their own deception and double-dealing and an unfeigned truthfulness results. Sicario is compelling cinema, formidable and ferocious, its moral and political squeam is sure to fuel tête-à-têtes endlessly. Stormy and refined, it’s an out-and-out unmissable tour de force.

Taste of Cinema Rating: 4.5 stars (out of 5)

Author Bio: Shane Scott-Travis is a film critic, screenwriter, comic book author/illustrator and cineaste. Currently residing in Vancouver, Canada, Shane can often be found at the cinema, the dog park, or off in a corner someplace, paraphrasing Groucho Marx. Follow Shane on Twitter @ShaneScottravis.




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  • Special Agent Jack Bauer

    This review had more $5 words than a some sort of fancy word generator thing.

    Seriously, when you have to Google the definitions of several extremely obscure words never used in mainstream anything…. It’s time to put down the thesaurus!

    • shane scott-travis

      Maybe if you read beyond the “young adult fiction” section at your public library you’d have a better vocabulary? Though suggesting I’m more verbose than “mainstream anything” is a startling revelation. Thanks for reading!

      • Special Agent Jack Bauer

        There’s verbose, and then there is using words no one has ever heard of before (including you, until you looked them up for this article).

        • shane scott-travis

          Words like “Delphian”, “Eurydice” and “Orphean” would be familiar to anyone who’s studied Greek mythology. The word “cynosure” was tossed around a lot by the Romantics. I guess Emily Blunt brings out the Lord Byron in me.
          I’m well aware that I overwrite when a film excites me. When I was in film school 20 years ago I read Sarris and Kael greedily. Their passion for film swept me up, as did their flowery and indulgent writing style. I’m guilty of that, absolutely.

          • Special Agent Jack Bauer

            Film school…that explains it right there!
            I think 20 years is too late to ask for a refund tough.

          • shane scott-travis

            (*slow clap*)

      • Kaligula

        Wow. If you’re that thin-skinned over a light-hearted criticism (which is completely, obviously spot-on) you might not be cut out for this internet thing.

        • shane scott-travis

          You’re right. I should be veiled in anonymity and tout my adoration for Zemeckis treacle from the safety of the garret I spend all day wanking in while making personal attacks on strangers. Got it. Good luck finding someone to co-sign for you, btw. 😉

          • Kaligula

            What are you proposing, that I use my real name and we meet in real life and fight? You got called out on your pretentious writing and instead of laughing at yourself you doubled-down with douchebaggery. Grow the fuck up.

          • shane scott-travis

            Not at all. I’m proposing that you’re only being bold because you’re anonymous. Now run along and play.

          • Special Agent Jack Bauer

            If you think Kaligula was being bold…that probably explains a lot right there!.

    • Applerod

      I don’t understand. Is this a review of the review? Because if it is–and I’m just spitballing here–maybe the author was less concerned about making it accessible to the mainstream and more concerned with describing his impressions of the film in his own words.
      It’s a free review. Talk to the management if you want a refund.

      • Special Agent Jack Bauer

        Of course you don’t understand. Neither did anyone else!

    • Ah Got Somethin Ta Say!

      Lmao…I was about to post the same thing

  • One Guy From Andromeda

    Ferocious cynosure? Please. If the review had anything interesting to say about the movie except “it was well made, i liked it” at least.

    • shane scott-travis

      Riveting and insightful commentary. Your mom asked me to pass along that you should come up from the basement now & join us at the dinner table. Your food is getting cold!

      • Special Agent Jack Bauer

        “your mom” jokes – now that’s bold! (for a 10 year old)

        • shane scott-travis


  • Matias Flores

    Really good movie. I love Villeneuve and Emily Blunt, so i was really looking forward to it, and it didn’t disappoint. The performances are great, the cinematography is gorgeous and the suspense is really effective. I could’ve used some twists and turns maybe, but as it is it’s still enjoyable and a solid piece of film making. Great review!

  • D Train

    Great review of a great film. 🙂