Sharp as a Knife

“Sicario” is a word that goes back to Biblical times. During the Roman occupation of Judea, there was a splinter group of zealots who engaged in a terrorist war against the legions by killing individual soldiers. They used a dagger called a sicae, easily concealed and wickedly sharp, that they wielded with speed when they were close to the soldiers, defeating the Roman’s leather armor. As a group, these zealots were known as the Sicarii. The name means “dagger man” in Latin, though it’s usually defined by a word it predates by almost a millennium – assassin. The word moved from Latin into Spanish, where it now is used for a hit-man, particularly one working for the drug cartels.

Sicario is French-Canadian director Dennis Villenueve’s follow-up to his excellent 2013 movie Prisoners. Where the earlier film was more of a mystery, Sicario is a thriller that’s sharp as a knife, but what they both share is a meditation on the corrosive effect of violence within a tense, twisted plot. Rookie screenwriter Taylor Sheridan is more known as an actor – he had recurring roles on “Veronica Mars” and “Sons of Anarchy” – but he’s fashioned a white-knuckle ride for the movie audience that displays the confident storytelling of a seasoned pro.

Sicario begins with an assault on a house at the edge of the desert outside Chandler, Arizona. The FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team – their version of SWAT – deploys on a tip that hostages are being held inside by gunmen loyal to Mexican drug lord Manuel Diaz. Team Leader Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) leads her men inside and subdues the gunmen, but instead of hostages they find a house of horrors.

Through her superior (Victor Garber), Kate is brought onto a special task force that’s being led by Matt Graver (Josh Brolin). Graver and his right-hand man Alejandro (Benicio del Toro) are aiming to bring down Diaz by stirring up trouble on both sides of the border. Macer wants to get Diaz, but following Graver and Alejandro sends her down a dark tunnel. As Nietzsche said, “When you look into an abyss, the abyss looks into you.”

Blunt showed in Edge of Tomorrow that she could upstage Tom Cruise during action sequences, and there’s plenty of action in Sicario. But rather than the mindless violence you get in one of the Die Hard series or others of that ilk, her reaction to the violence is even more important. Macer questions what she’s doing, and through Blunt the audience is forced to face the central question of whether it’s worth it to win when to do so you must become as much of a monster as the one you’re fighting.

Alejandro is del Toro’s best performance since Traffic, and in some ways it’s the flip side of that earlier role. He rarely speaks, but his silences are filled with meaning. He plays in counterpoint to Brolin, whose Graver is outwardly facile, though that covers a dark heart. On the other side of the teeter-totter is Macer’s partner Reggie, played by Daniel Kaluuya, who tries to keep Kate from falling into the abyss.

Villenueve is ably assisted by cinematographer extraordinaire Roger Deakins (Skyfall, The Shawshank Redemption, A Beautiful Mind). The two had collaborated on the bleak winterscapes of Prisoners, while here you can almost taste the grit of the desert sand in your teeth. For one sequence near the climax of the movie, Deakins shot night scenes with actual thermal imaging cameras, rather than manipulating the film with special effects in post-production. Villenueve and Deakins show the border in a way it’s rarely if ever been seen in a film.

illenueve managed to make the film on a tight budget of thirty million, though the movie looks like they spent five times that amount. You don’t usually have a thriller debut on the festival circuit, but Sicario premiered at the Cannes festival and was also shown at the Toronto Film Festival, to the acclaim of critics and viewers alike. Where most thrillers are popcorn movies – fun but with little nutritional value – watching Sicario is more like consuming a steak dinner.

After all, you need a knife to cut the meat.

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