Sicario & The Ushering in of The 2015 Oscar Race

by: Michael Shields

As we sit on the cusp of the release of the Oscar contending films, a true stunner arises to hold us over…

Sicario

It isn’t too much of a reach to declare that this summer’s crop of films were a bit of a disappointment. Of course, probing for substance amongst the shards of reckless explosions is a fool’s errand, but this summer’s offering of films seemed especially mediocre. It was rife with outright flops such as Cameron Crowe’s Aloha and Adam Sandler’s Pixels. It presented compelling arguments against remakes with such films as Vacation, The Fantastic Four, and Poltergeist. This summer even trotted out a cyborg Arnold Schwarzenegger in another Terminator reboot, and in hindsight, even the blockbusters that did stick their landing –The Avengers: Age of Ultron, Jurassic World, and Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation – were more serviceable than transcendent. While there certainly were some gems (Mad Max: Fury Road, The End of the Tour, Mr. Holmes, Ex Machina, Inside Out, Mistress America, etc.) scattered amongst the remnants of could-have-beens, Summer 2015 will be remembered more for its haul at the box office rather than the mark it made culturally. However, autumn is now upon us, and the gathering of films now awaiting cinephiles doesn’t simply look good, but downright triumphant1. And there is one film that is prepared to shoulder the burden of ushering us into this bountiful season, Sicario – an unflinching excursion into the escalating war on drugs at the border between the United States and Mexico.

Sicario is terrifying. It jolts you to attention within moments of its opening, grabbing you imperiously and never relinquishing its grip for the entirety of the film. In Spanish, “sicario” means hitman, but it also can refer to those zealots in ancient Jerusalem who hunted and killed the Roman invaders. Both definitions become readily apparent as the film progresses, and in this way Sicario walks a fine line of moral ambiguity. The film tells the story of Kate Macer, who is drawn to the front lines of the border wars by a mysterious government official named Matt Graver (Josh Brolin). Kate is idealistic, her only aim is to catch those responsible for the epidemic of kidnapping and violence gushing over the border. But she soon learns that the war that is being waged, the one she is becoming privy to as she delves deeper into the horrors of the cartel’s methods and the techniques invoked in combatting them, are nefarious and illicit in and of themselves. As Kate’s eyes are opened unto these terrifying truths, as are the viewers and Sicario at no point sidesteps the intrinsic complexities of the matters at hand, but rather sucks you down into a rabbit hole that closely resembles Hell, right here on Earth.

Denis Villeneuve, the film’s director, is responsible for two very gritty and all consuming films released in the last few years, Prisoners (2013) and Enemy (2014), yet somehow Sicario’s pessimism, and realism weave an even bleaker, tenser tale. The acting in Sicario is tremendous. The film is galvanized by the Killer B’s,2 a gifted trio of actors in Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, and Benicio Del Toro, who put on masterful performances. Emily Blunt’s Kate Macer is an FBI Agent who is strong, capable, and driven, but it is her underlying layer of vulnerability and human frailty that makes her identifiable and enthralling. Josh Brolin’s Matt Graver is cocky to the point of arrogance, but whose laid back manner – and flip flops – belie his extreme capabilities and intentions. But it is Benicio’s shadowy Alejandro, a soft spoken “assistant,” who may in fact be the cream of this brilliant crop. Del Toro hasn’t been this arresting onscreen since 2000’s parallel-themed Traffic, where he won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, an award he could easily be competing for again come this February.3

Sicario is telling. It is an expose not only on the barbarity which resides just miles south of the US-Mexico border, but of the lengths the United States Government will go in order to impose their will and further their agenda. This has been the case for sometime, in Latin America and now in the Middle East, as the willingness for the United States to sell its soul in unwinnable wars has unfortunately become a trademark of a country ironically brimming with well-intentioned citizens. Sicario excels in highlighting the absolute evils that the United States will crawl in bed with to secure their interests. While Sicario, and the government cowboys presented within it, are absolutely fascinating, they are also entirely sobering. “Nothing will make sense to your American ears, and you will doubt everything we do,” the enigmatic Alejandro tells Kate, a line that sums up the film perfectly.

In limited release, Sicario has grossed a total of $390,000 across six theaters, the best per-screen performance of the year so far. As the film opens nationwide this weekend, a much wider audience will now become privy to one of the most engaging and best films of 2015. Sicario is a finely crafted film, written by actor-turned-writer (Sons of Anarchy) Taylor Sheridan, skillfully filmed by Roger Deakins, and dutifully edited by Joe Walker. It’s a film that is refreshing in the wake of all the meager films to come before it this year, and one that will undoubtedly be remembered even after this year’s wave of Oscar contenders washes over us. Sicario is profoundly impactful. It never gives viewers even a moment to exhale, mirroring the reality of the dire situation in towns on the southern border of the United States, a reality that Sicario brings you masterfully face-to-face with.

  1. The Martian, Trumbo, Spotlight, Steve Jobs, Beasts of No Nation, Carol, Joy, The Revenant, Star Wars and many, many more. []
  2. A sports reference, a nod to the Houston Astros of the mid-90s whose core of talent all possessed surnames that began with the letter B: Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio, and Lance Berkman. []
  3. Also of note is the shrewd performance by Daniel Kaluuya, mostly notable for his performance in the Black Mirror episode, “15 Million Merits.” []

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