Taylor Sheridan is having a pretty good run at the moment. Last year, Hell or High Water, a neo-Western crime thriller starring Chris Pine, got nominated for Best Picture. This year, he finally directed one of his own scripts in Wind River, a much darker but equally thrilling look at a series of murders on an Indian reservation. A writer making a name for himself in Hollywood is difficult these days, the only other famous one that comes to mind is Charlie Kaufman. Yet there's something so real about Sheridan's characters, and you can't help but genuinely care about them as he ramps up the tension. This all started with Sicario however, a huge and well deserved breakout for Sheridan, putting his name out there in a way that would pave the road for his later successes.
From nearly the very beginning, a sense of unease and wrongness pervades every scene. It starts with a semi-routine police bust led by Kate Mercer (Emily Blunt) that escalates quickly with the discovery of bodies and a hidden bomb in what appears to be some sort of Cartel safehouse. After this, Kate is tossed into an operation which she vaguely understands is related to the Cartel member she believes is connected to the home, and is shipped off with team members who have questionable credentials and even more questionable motives. It's at this moment, not even 30 minutes in, that things start to not feel right. Emily Blunt does a great job being the audiences vehicle, emoting exactly what we're feeling, this confused and apprehensive tone to her voice the whole time. The flow of information to her is controlled very well here by the writer to promote this sense of vague unease, as we're given enough info to understand mostly what's happening, but the details are kept hazy, and new pieces of conflicting and disquieting information keep popping up and throwing us off balance. All of this contributes to this feeling, this nagging feeling that something is wrong, something bad is happening and we can't figure out what it is. In the first big firefight of the movie, Kate at one point can't help but yell out "What the f*** are we doing?" as people are mowed down around her in full view of civilians, the exact thing that every audience member should be wondering at that exact moment.
All of these things are a part of what drives the tension in Sicario. Kate is an FBI agent, thrust into a world where the rules are less strict, the lines between good and bad much less clear, where her allies have their own agendas that don't line up with how she normally does things. She's dragged into something that begins to affect her personal life, invade every aspect of who she is, and it's unsettling. Sheridan's movies are all very good at keeping things tense, but Sicario especially has a sense of imminent danger that comes with the subject matter, and he plays it very well. Even in her downtime, even on her own home turf, Kate becomes a stranger, a pawn in a much larger game that she has no hope of controlling or understanding. This is not to say that she is a weak character, she is simply a person who is thrust into a world that is darker and more ambiguous than she is used to, who is forced at gunpoint to do things that she views as wrong. She is presented with a situation in which no rational person would know what to do. It is only these CIA agents, with years of murder, espionage, and who knows what else under their belt that can traverse this world without coming out uninjured. Kate is not one of these people, and she comes out of this film worse for wear than she started. She has seen what goes on in the shadows, what occurs in secret operations, and it has scarred her, knowing that these people will get away with what they've done. She stares institutional corruption in the face, and she gives up not because she is weak, but because her strength means nothing in the wake of such a beast.
Benicio Del Toro deserves his own little blurb as well, because his character is absolutely terrifying. From the beginning, he is always in control, always two steps ahead, and always doing whatever suits his needs best. He has a singular mission, and is simply using whoever he can to complete it. This works just fine for the CIA, as they essentially don't care what chaos he wreaks along the way as long as he completes his mission. But through the eyes of Kate, we see a man who stands for nearly the opposite of everything she does. He doesn't care about procedure, about human rights, about jurisdiction, or about collateral damage. He is the personification of this institutional corruption that Kate faces, a man who is essentially untouchable, and chooses to use this power to hurt people in the name of his own interests. There's a particular scene near the end, where all of Del Toro's face is covered in darkness except for a small part around his left eye, and you can feel the power that he wields in that moment, and you understand that whatever he wants, he will get, one way or another.
All of this is beautifully rendered on screen by Villeneuve, everything is put in exactly it's right place at the right time. Part of the fun of following Sheridan is seeing how different directors treat his scripts, and having Villeneuve direct Sicario was just brilliance. Especially the tunnel scene towards the end is shot and edited in such a great way, so many memorable images, and once they're in the tunnel, there is such a claustrophobic feeling to it, once again heightening the tension and helping the audience feel exactly as Kate does: lost, hurt, and confused. Having someone like Villeneuve direct his first major picture was an incredible opportunity for Sheridan, and one that clearly paid off. Sicario is an exciting thrill ride that will keep you tense and on the edge of your seat for it's full 2 hour runtime, and it'll leave you with images and scenes that you'll be thinking about days later.