The best film of 2013, Prisoners pushes viewers down a deep, dark rabbit hole of mystery. And it keeps them giddy with anticipation for every nightmarish situation around the corner. Director Denis Villeneuve takes the ordinary suburban setting and infuses it with a surreal sense of dread. His new film, Sicario, has a more otherworldly setting but far fewer surprises.
The film opens at the U.S.-Mexico border in Arizona, following an FBI raid on a hideout run by a Mexican drug cartel. From there, field agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) volunteers to join a task force dedicated to taking down two major drug dealers in Mexico — the men responsible for the deaths of her fellow agents in Arizona.
Sicario might have been a better film if it revolved around its namesake. A hitman with a haunted past, Alejandro has two more dimensions than Kate. While he's lost loved ones to the drug trade and turned to violence as a result, she's a squeaky-clean do-gooder. Telling a story about corruption through her completely innocent eyes seems like a lazy choice on the part of Villeneuve and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan.
She doesn't have much to work with and thus Blunt gives the least interesting performance. Brolin, on the other hand, sinks his teeth into the role of a government operative who has far too much fun in the midst of grisly business. Del Toro is the real standout, adding layers of sorrow beneath Alejandro's formidable exterior. He's as dynamic as Kate is dull.
Like its heroine, the film doesn't have much depth. It's a one-trick pony, and its trick is creating a moody atmosphere. Villeneuve maintains a slow-burn pace while master cinematographer Roger Deakins captures the unsettling serenity of Mexico's borders — the calm before the storm. A particularly breathtaking shot shows agents silhouetted by a desert sunset as they gear up for an attack on a drug tunnel, which is filmed through the eerie green glow of night-vision goggles. (It’s Deakins’ best camerawork since the similar desert thriller No Country for Old Men.)
Sicario certainly has the glossy sheen of an Academy Award contender. It's one of those Oscar season movies that seems great because it's slow, quiet and timely (although it's hardly an earth-shattering exploration of America's War on Drugs). If it came out earlier this year, I'm not sure it would receive all the critical acclaim it's garnering.
As he did with Prisoners, Villeneuve proves to be a master of mood. Unfortunately, the darkly atmospheric energy of Sicario is wasted on a story with very little substance. Like a drug, it's cool and alluring at first, but it ultimately leaves you empty.
Opening: Friday, in wide release