Amongst the best in its entire run, episode seven, season two of Breaking Bad, “Negro y Azul” sees decorated DEA agent Hank Schrader’s fated run-in with a Cartel informant known only as Tortuga (a perfect in the role Danny Trejo). The syndicate snitch assembles a wish list of “thank you” gifts from a SkyMall mag – the going rate for Cartel rats. Hank butts in, jeering Tortuga to hurry it along and dispense with the bullshittery, awaiting the familiar nods of approval he’s used to as big dog back in Albuquerque. A tidal wave of censure bears down on him like a face full of hot Champurrado; sodden scorn pours from the eyes of colleagues and the turtle-titled turncoat alike. Taken aback, Hank swallows the salty-but-sure fact that what may soar in the Northern-most stretch of American border comes to die here in the infertile Mexican desert. He’s a bald eagle, snatched up and spanked by the very red, white and blue claws that feeds him.
Hank later spots Tortuga, whose head has been un-ironically staked upon the land creature of the same name. He retreats, dazed, to up his lunch (presumably a burrito and some Coronas). Hardened colleagues snicker at Hank’s inability to stomach the violent display – a decapitated head riding a tortoise supposedly ranks low on the rungs of cartel horrors. Just before being suddenly blown to smithereens by a covert IED staged between turtles – strategically fixed betwixt the head of a man and his reptilian counterpart – Hank’s calloused superior barks, “Welcome to Juare…” Kaboom.
Juarez – land of the maimed, home of bleeding out in the sand – is also the staging ground for Denis Villeneuve‘s grit-fueled Sicario. His by-the-books “protagonist,” Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is not unlike Hank Schrader. Out of her depths with the wherewithal to know it. Encased in violence well beyond any semblance of normalcy. Kate’s a hawk on her home turf; decorated, elite, leaping her way up the ladder. But all the CIA raids in the world can’t teach you what it’s like to get spanked in Juarez. In this land of brown and grey, she’s green. And in more ways than one.
Inexperience and repulsion twist into a sickening tornado, black as the maw of some subterranean cave used to smuggle drugs (and likely prepubescent bodies.) Coming to terms with just how f*cked up the border landscape is – what with its dangling limbless corpses and nonchalant displays of inconsequentially seizing human life – is accepting the inevitable. It is also giving up in an intangibly horrific way. To swallow the red pill is to exit the Matrix and most of us enjoy the small comforts the blue pill affords. The cozy slippers, the Folgers in your cup. Just as Macer refuses to give up that part of herself – that which sees the law in tones of blacks and whites, who believes in heroes and villains, who can manage the simplicity of cops and robbers – Hank only barely manages to evacuate Juarez, but with lasting scars.
The parallels between Hank Schrader and Kate Macer don’t end there. Nor do the similarities between Sicario and Breaking Bad. Both are gems, absolutely loaded with breathtaking, bone-breaking cinematography. Like the celebrated T.V. program, Sicario’s landscapes are baked in an oven of raw sunshine; they’re crisp, concise and absolutely loaded with foreboding, particularly when smothered in daylight.
Unsurprisingly, Sicario is shot by a Roger Deakins busting out all the stops. The lauded DP toys with infrared and night vision shots on his digital rig in addition to fiddling with some mind-bogglingly massive scales. His aerial photography alone feels like a black mass growing slowly heavier on your chest. Soon you are unable to breathe beneath its heaving weight. Crushing you more moment-to-moment, air becomes an impossibility.
A mid-film convoy sequence allows Deakins’ to spread his wings in ways he’s not done before. From leagues away, a jet black procession of SUVs race. The shot is equally impressive and unorthodox in the midst of an “action drama.” Rather than thanklessly jamming us in the thick storm of their emissions, we watch hawk-like overhead. The camera steady. The scale epic. On the ground, those agencies willing to enforce inject so such effort into containing the most minuscule corner of a sprawling campus. From our vista, we see but ants tilting at windmills. Or wolves as it were.
In the procession rides Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro). Alejandro is 2015’s response to The Man With No Name. He’s the shadow of Anton Chigurh. A cowboy merc shrouded in mystery and death, with a taste for drab colors. Taylor Sheridan’s script reveals Alejandro slowly, undressing him piecemeal. His obscurity is amplified by the backroom dealings we do not see him engage in. Much like Villeneuve cut away from scenes of Paul Dano subjected to torture in Prisoners, he turns his camera off as Alejandro gets down and dirty. We’ll see him enter an interrogation room with a 10 gallon water jug. He’ll exit later with the scoop he needs. We’re left to fill in the details. All we know is the man administers one hell of a wet willy.
Performing against Del Toro – who for all intents and purposes should be guaranteed an Academy Award nomination or five – is Josh Brolin, who’s hit his own hot streak of late. As a sandal-sporting suit with ambiguous ties, Brolin juggles his comedic senses in with his scary side. The adroit actor manages to warp his lines into half-beaming but fully-frigid affairs. Though Del Toro is the main affair, Brolin’s is a side dish best enjoyed often and another cast stand-out.
The music too is used to hollowing effect. One simple refrain from Jóhann Jóhannsson is an auditory nail in the coffin surreptitiously inserted in just the right moments. Lapping through the surround sound, Jóhannsson’s auditory assault mounts like a guerrilla army crouching in the bush. Like Hans Zimmer slowed Edith Pilaf to a crawl for Inception‘s now-iconic hammer strokes of sound, Jóhannsson’s moody theme feels like he attached a leech to “Ride of the Valkyrie,” augmenting its tenor into a minor key and fixing it with a noose. The soundscape is haunting – the sonic rush of night terrors. It looms, spikes and breaks, melting away like the curl of a crimson wave.
Be aware, the picture is not for everyone. From page one, Sicario attempts to distinguish itself from the tastes of the hoi polloi. Its tale is one of woe; of oppressive melancholic despondency. Its characters are mired in bureaucracy, corruption and bad taste. Its moral: abandon all hope, ye who enter. The first scene alone is a wake up call to anyone who stumbled into the wrong theater. Prepare yourself, these tableaus are tainted.
Rounding out a certifiable trilogy of off the beaten path urban nightmares, Villeneuve has proved himself to be a man of many talents as well as a director who shan’t be shoehorned lightly with Sicario . His confidence is palpable – he’s not here to prove anything or twist any arms. Not in a hurry at least. Earmarked by a calculated pacing that unfolds into huge payoffs and an inherent ability to work recently overlooked actors into some of their most accomplished roles, Villeneuve’s talent is undeniable. Sicario is living proof that he is amongst the best and most interesting directors of our time.
CONCLUSION: Emboldened by Roger Deakin’s screamingly accomplished cinematography, Jóhann Jóhannsson’s hypnotic score, Benicio Del Toro’s unforgettable performance and Denis Villeneuve‘s prudent, cold-blooded direction, ‘Sicario‘ commits cinematic terrorism against our desire for narrative order. It’s time to welcome Villeneuve to the Masters circle.