I will remember “Sicario” for being filled to the brim with tension in all the best possible ways. In a film about the escalating drug wars along the Mexican border, this is a film that is more about the morbid details of paranoid and fear than the action. In fact, for a movie with such a big military presence, there is very little gun play, but the promise of violence hangs around every corner, especially in the opening 40 minutes of the movie.
After a drug raid on an abandoned house in Arizona ends with the discovery of dozens of dead bodies left in the dry wall and two dead police officers, FBI agent Kate Mercer (Emily Blunt) is called into confront the man responsible for these deaths. But Kate is kept in the dark throughout the majority of the film, especially when she’s briefed that the mission will be happening in El Paso and the group is actually crossing over the Mexican border to Juarez, the drug smuggling hotspot.
Throughout this sequence of events, we are repeatedly shown that nothing good will be coming from this raid on Juarez and that brutality is inevitable. The tension continually mounts, as the convey has to divert when they hear gun fire, everyone becomes suspicious when a rogue state patrol car follows too closely, and we end up at the US-Mexican border, only to face gridlock and the convey is brought to a dead stop. The audience is told many times the most likely spot for confrontation would be at the border, and now everyone is stuck and unsure of where and who their enemy is.
Most of “Sicario” is like a good, well-timed jump scare. It is not the act of the jump scare that terrifies us, but knowing that it could happen at any moment, expecting it to happen any time, and not delivering on that until the right moment. The tension comes less from the action, and more from the waiting.
The audience is put in the same position as Kate, looking and waiting for something to pop off, so even the simple action of waiting in an alleyway or rolling down a window becomes a life-or-death situation. We mostly see this whole sequence from Kate’s perspective, as she takes in and observes everything.
This sequence is wonderful because the tension is built up for the first act of “Sicario,” never letting up and ending in a satisfying conclusion of paranoia and violence. Each scene flows into the next one and builds more on the disorder of the last scene. With brilliant pacing, atmosphere and a haunting score, we get one of the most memorable sequences in recent memory.
The rest of “Sicario” continues that creepy and unexpecting atmosphere, but gets a little too wrapped up the characters and plot to keep up the tension. The film loosens its grip on us and pulls back to tell us more about Kate and Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro). This doesn’t diminish the film by any means, but the first act holds the scenes that are worth remembering.
Final Grade: B+