SICARIO (2015, Denis Villeneuve)
Screwed so tight there are dimples in the iron, Villeneuve’s pitch-black exercise in drug-war nihilism contains two jolts so alarming in just the first five minutes, you’ll wonder if your heart can take the next two hours. Those with pacemakers or a penchant for nightmares are advised to stay away.
Anyone else, however, must experience this on the big screen. The combination of Roger Deakins’s ace photography, Jóhan Jóhannsson’s dread-inducing score, and the great Joe Walker’s minimalist editing creates a merciless sense of horror and a gripping experience that — even if nothing else lingered — would make SICARIO enough to recommend on a purely visceral level. But Villeneuve and novice writer Taylor Sheridan infuse this bleak vision of military politics with some savvy critiques — though our hero is a woman and her partner a black man, those truly in power are white dudes (even gum-smacking, flip-flop-wearing d-bags like Josh Brolin’s character). And their hawkish, shakily-justified tactics of violent warfare infects every community from Arizona down to Mexico: one of the film’s best shots is a quiet, wide view of an American suburb where a woman walks her dog in the distance — pierced by the foregrounded darkness of a SWAT team creeping on one of the houses. Another masterful image is a drawn-out silhouette (a specialty of Deakins, ever since he shot this eye-popping image from SID & NANCY) of agents marching into the depths of a tunnel to Mexico, their dark, helmeted bodies contrasting with the dying orange of a setting sun.
Each scene drips with menace and foreboding, whether it’s a shot of the collecting of rainbow bracelets holding cash bundles together, or of a static drain that’s merely a cutaway during a scene of impending waterboard-torture (perpetrated by Benicio del Toro’s oily Alejandro — a performance so careful it conveys years of character in just the way he folds his jacket). The film’s color is sickly yellow-green — that is, when it’s not a terrific blend of black-and-green night vision mixed with black-and-white heat-sensors. At times you have no idea what’s going on, which both puts you in Blunt’s place, and helps Villeneuve comment that this war is not one with easy explanations. Among those previously mentioned dimples in the iron are a forced subplot attempting to humanize the Mexicans (which could have been worse, but still rings false), and a poor performance from Julio Cedillo in a one-scene role that nevertheless requires some expert reacting, at which Cedillo fails in his big close-up. But the scars from this experience do not easily wash away — like the branding of a hot iron, it stays burnt and black and infectious.