Director: Denis Villeneuve
Starring: Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, Benicio Del Toro
Oscar snubs will always get people interested. They will have their favourites and believe that it should have been recognised, and I am not different. Some films just resonate with you more than others and you feel aggrieved when they get nothing for all the glory that you have experienced on the screen.
Denis Villeneuve’s 2015 film Sicario is one of those films for me. From the glorious, bombastic start to the demoralising finish, I was invested in the story and the characters, and above all else the time and place. Though it received three nominations, Best Original Score, Best Cinematography and Best Sound Editing, it sadly didn’t win any of them but there are other categories that I also believe it should have been recognised in.
Probably the largest grievance for me is that Benicio Del Toro got nothing for this film. As the mysterious Alejandro he begins the film in the background, skirting the shadows and staying at arms length from Emily Blunt’s Kate Mercer, but as the film moves on and the story develops so does Del Toro. Moving into the foreground, playing a more important part, controlling the direction of the mission and doing the tasks that no-one else is permitted to do. His mix of brooding silence and taciturnity, ruthlessness and thirst for revenge over his dead family is a potent one. It has been a long time since I have seen Del Toro put in such a powerful performance as he has done here. It is certainly a better performance than some of those who were nominated in the Best Supporting Actor category (both Christian Bale in The Big Short and Tom Hardy in The Revenant and I even preferred this to Sylvester Stallone’s return in Creed).
Again in the acting categories I’d have liked Emily Blunt to have at least received a nomination for this role, even if it wouldn’t quite usurp Brie Larson from her award for Room. Blunt’s FBI agent Kate Mercer is determined and driven, has an impressive record and is ambitious but this gets her in out of her depth with joining Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) and their “team”. I was impressed by her ability to be able to play strong yet vulnerable and still be believable throughout as the devoted law enforcement agent that she is, and it is further emphasised by being the lone female member of the covert ops team, and she does an amazing job holding her own and keeping herself to the fore as the mission unfolds. Blunt has been putting out some pretty great performances for a while now and it is high time that she gets something to reflect this.
Moving onto Best Original Score, which got a nomination, Jóhann Jóhannsson’s work here is perfectly coupled with the action and visuals on the screen and it definitely should have won this one. Far more raw and emotive than Ennio Morricone’s winning Hateful Eight score, it is the driving force behind the tension felt, building up and fading away as is required, never overpowering but adding to the film. The mix of percussion and strings, all low and earthy give it that resonance that there is something heavy coming, something of import and this is never better shown than the Convoy/prisoner transfer/bridge scene which is an exemplary piece of work and certainly shows how a scene can be enhanced. Villeneuve stated that he wanted the score to feel like “a threat, coming from under your feet, deep under the surface of the scorched earth of the Chihuahua desert.” Hits the nail on the head.
Roger Deakins’ cinematography is amazing in this, not in your face amazing but by allowing the imagery to linger on screen, giving it it’s time to sink in, it works fantastically in conjunction with Villeneuve’s patient style. The fact that he got nominated is great but to not win again must be making him wonder what he has to do to get that award! The contrast between the bright Arizona sunlit vistas and the dark, malevolent Mexican-set finale is superb. The scenery isn’t as spectacular as Oscar winner Emmanuel Lubezki’s in The Revenant but it is impressive how Deakins uses it and the light to create some truly wonderful visuals, in particular the bird’s eye view scenes as they fly across the Mexican landscape and also with the descent of the team into the tunnel against the backdrop of twilight sky spring to mind. It was a risky decision to play out the tunnel section with a combination of night vision and thermal cameras but it adds another layer to the action and suspense, more of an unknown, and definitely makes you feel uneasy about what is happening. I can imagine that this would have been a tough call between these two greats and their work for this year.
As has been seen of late, Denis Villeneuve has definitely come to the fore. His control and vision for Arrival is outstanding and the news that he is helming Blade Runner 2049 and a Dune remake is surely good news for those films and the audience. But digging into his back catalogue and you can see that it wasn’t really a breakthrough as he has been plying his trade, crafting some amazing films for some time. Before Sicario there was Enemy and Prisoners, both tense, complex thrillers that rely a great deal on the performances of the actors and the story to unfold in its own time. Before those there was Incendies and Polytechnique, harrowing but utterly superb filmmaking, and Sicario is no different. But one of the things that Villeneuve does across all of these films is not to rush the story. There are no shortcuts, no info-dump for the audience and, in my opinion, this elevates all these films above the norm, requiring you to follow and understand and invest. He shows you the path but let’s you walk down it. And, in another trait, just when you think that you know what is happening there is a twist or a change of direction and you see things in a different light, not just that moment but the entire film. To have that and be able to do that in any film shows amazing vision and ability but to do it multiple times is something else entirely!
As a package (director, screenplay, cinematography, score, actress, supporting actor) Sicario punches way above it’s weight and should have been way up there in the awards. Maybe the thing holding against it was the slight bittersweet ending, with Matt and Alejandro doing what they needed to do but Kate losing out, being forced to participate against her will and against her principles. Seems to be a Villeneuve trait; an ending that doesn’t resolve everything in a perfect way, but leaves a little bit of the pain lingering. Makes for a deeper, more meaningful film. I guess the “Hollywood ending” still has some pull with the Academy!
Sicario gets a 9 out of 10