The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan



Every so often, a film comes along that delves into tough subject matter in an unflinching way. Sicario is just such a film. It deals with the drug war, which has been raging violently for decades. Other movies have dealt with the same topic – Steven Soderbergh's Traffic among them – but this one takes a more personal approach by viewing it through the eyes of an outsider brought onto the front lines to fight it.

Emily Blunt plays Kate Macer, an agent in the FBI's kidnap response unit. After discovering some victims' bodies disposed of in an especially gruesome manner, she jumps at the chance to volunteer with a task force aimed at bringing down those responsible. This brings her into contact with Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), a Department of Defense adviser who is leading the search for the drug cartel leader behind these, and many other, kidnappings and murders. Also on the team is Alejandro Gillick (Benicio Del Toro), a man whose exact role and function are uncomfortably hazy to Kate. She wants to do things by the book, but soon discovers that Matt's team is covertly working beyond its jurisdiction. And that's just the first of several lines that are blurred. In order to locate the hard-to-find leader, Matt and Alejandro intend to “create chaos” at the cartel's Mexican base, hoping that it will fish him out.

It's probably no revelation to say that the drug war has thus far proved unwinnable. Drugs are still everywhere, still pouring into the country at an alarming rate. The question is, what do we do about it? The feds can bust the low-level smugglers, but the kingpins in charge will just replace them. They can go after the people at the very top, but they're often intentionally isolated, shielded, and difficult to find. This is the precise dilemma that Sicario deals with. In order to nail they guy they want, stepping over some boundaries is necessary. Is that unethical, though, even if it leads to a greater good? Early on, Matt tells Kate that she won't like everything she sees, but she will understand it at the end. He's talking to the audience, as well. Alejandro's role becomes clearer in the film's final twenty minutes. The implications are unnerving, to say the least. Sicario is intelligent and provocative in the way it examines difficult truths about the drug war, namely that we may have to fight brutally in order to defeat brutal people. Kate eventually has to decide how she feels about that. You will too.

Despite the heavy subject matter, Sicario works just as well as a thriller as it does a social-issue drama. The action scenes are exciting not because of shootouts or explosions, but because they feel authentic and carry actual weight. One of the best finds the team approaching a hidden tunnel that is used to transport drugs. They make their way toward it at night, and the sequence is shot with night-vision and thermal cameras, which enhances the precariousness of the mission. Just as tense is the way director Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners) stages Kate's entrance into Mexico. There's a good ten minutes of her in the back of a car, driving across the border and through the streets of a run-down, drug-ridden town. While that might sound stagnant, it actually helps convey the threatening world she is entering. When she passes a bridge with mutilated bodies hanging from it, the seriousness of the stakes becomes chillingly clear.

Visuals such as that obviously make an impact, but Sicario is so effective because Emily Blunt proves to be a perfect guide through this dark, hostile underworld. Giving her best performance to date, the actress expertly depicts dueling sides of Kate. On one hand, she's compassionate and believes in the merits of following protocol. On the other hand, she's hardened enough by what she's seen to be nobody's fool. Blunt is incredible in the role; her work elevates the movie's look at moral quandaries associated with the subject matter. Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro provide strong support. The former invests Matt with “whatever it takes” cockiness, while the latter maintains an air of mystery as Alejandro slowly, methodically reveals his agenda.

A few moments are difficult to follow, thanks to some complex procedural talk and an occasional lack of clarity as to who certain characters are. (Jon Bernthal, for example, has a small role, and his association to one of the other figures is barely explained.) On balance, though, Sicario is a powerful and hard-hitting look at a problem that simply won't go away. “This is the land of wolves now,” Alejandro tells Kate. He's not kidding. The villains in the drug war don't think twice about killing anyone who stands in the way of their money, including children. Kate has to decide whether or not to become a wolf.

This is a film that will have you thinking for a long time afterward.

( 1/2 out of four)

Sicario is rated R for strong violence, grisly images, and language. The running time is 2 hours and 1 minute.

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