SICARIO has long gleamed darkly on the horizon, a morbid star promising hope. I've navigated the movie lineups by it, through the doldrums of studio slough-offs and intermittent indie disappointments. Against my better judgment, I charged this movie with whatever excitement the year's worst movies hadn't yet ground out of me. And I wasn't wrong. As with the transcendent Prisoners (2013), director Denis Villeneuve has made a beautiful thing about truly terrible things. From a screenplay by Taylor Sheridan, he works his way into the narco conflict raging around the US/Mexico border and examines it from both north and south elevations.
The narrow door through which we step is opened by Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), an FBI kidnapping investigator in Arizona. Leading a tactical raid on a tract house in a quiet suburb, she expects to find a hostage situation. Instead, she discovers a cartel corpse gallery concealed in the stud spaces and a booby-trapped backyard. She acquits herself well, and her grisly discovery somehow dovetails with an ongoing multi-agency operation. At the urging of Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), a mysterious operator in flip-flops who chooses not to reveal any official affiliation, she volunteers for said operation. Almost immediately, she's on her way to Juarez, accompanied by Graver and an even more mysterious fellow named Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), along with US Marshals and a squad of Delta Force hard cases. Kate is among men of violence, in a city defined by it, but still understandably shocked when it erupts before her with horrifying force. So begins her brief and brutal education on the realities of the "Drug War."
Sicario works as an action movie but relies on the techniques of suspense thrillers for much of its impact, so revealing more would be a disservice. Sheridan and Villeneuve illuminate a vast and varied conflict by keeping the story small and sticking close to the through-line of Kate's perspective as the narrative develops. Hardened as she may be, Kate is unprepared for the realities of the ground war, for the permeability of rules and borders.
The sense of uncertainty Sicario creates is elevated by the collaboration between Villeneuve and director of photography Roger Deakins. Together they recreate the border territory as both vast and claustrophobic, stark, beautiful and devastating. Even an airplane's shadow crossing the desert is charged with dread, suggesting violence. (Deakins' work here is, per usual, Oscar-worthy, though he'll doubtless be snubbed again.) That visual suggestion is key in Sicario's suspense. Although it never mounts the impossible tension achieved in Prisoners, the movie generates its own sustained horror punctuated by flashes of graphic violence. The real violence is in what Villeneuve leaves out. When Alejandro enters an interrogation room carrying a five-gallon jug of water, for example, we don't have to see what he does. The slow zoom in to a floor drain is enough. This restraint, this novelistic patience, may be Villeneuve's greatest attribute as a director. He understands pacing so fundamentally — aided tremendously by editors like Steve McQueen's go-to Joe Walker — that he seems to know exactly what he wants from every frame before the camera rolls. Blunt gives a truly unexpected performance here, transforming completely. And Del Toro, well — he's the best, doing the best work of his career.
Villeneuve's movies can, not unfairly, be called genre pictures. That's fine, but it dismisses their depth and beauty. While the awards storm rages, he is quietly building a body of the most finely constructed, fully realized work in contemporary cinema. R. 121m. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.
THE MARTIAN. The work of Ridley Scott, grand stylist, old master of science fiction, can be characterized many ways, but I wouldn't have counted optimism among them. There are elements of triumph in the face of adversity in his work, but they are usually so steeped in cynicism, irony and misanthropy that the effect is more resigned than celebratory. Not so with The Martian, Scott's most positive, perhaps most enjoyable movie to date. There are moments of desolation and strife, but the cumulative effect is uplifting.
When a severe storm threatens the safety of a Mars mission, the crew is forced to withdraw. In the confusion, Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is injured and left behind, presumed dead. When he wakes up alone, tens of millions of miles from home, Watney can either give in to circumstances or recreate them to suit his needs. He chooses the latter, using his botany training to grow food and re-establishing communication with Earth. There is, of course, the problem of timing: It will take four years for a manned mission to return to Mars and rescue him.
While the ending may not be particularly surprising, there are enough wrinkles in the plot to keep things interesting. The movie sags slightly in the middle, but overall is compelling, exciting, life-affirming and beautiful to look at. PG13. 141m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK, MINOR.
— John J. Bennett
For showtimes, see the Journal's listings at www.northcoastjournal.com or call: Broadway Cinema 443-3456; Fortuna Theatre 725-2121; Mill Creek Cinema 839-3456; Minor Theatre 822-3456.
99 HOMES. Andrew Garfield is a young father working with the shady real estate scammer who evicted him in this suspense drama. R. 112m. BROADWAY.
HE NAMED ME MALALA. Documentary about Malala Yousafzai, her attack by the Taliban and her emergence as a political figure. PG13. 87m. MINOR.
PAN. Peter's backstory and first trip to Neverland with pirates, fairies and floating galleons. Starring swashbuckling Hugh Jackman. R. 121m. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK, FORTUNA.
THE WALK. Based on the true story of sure-footed Philippe Petit's high-wire stroll between the Twin Towers. PG. 123m. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.
BLACK MASS. Fine acting by Johnny Depp as gangster "Whitey" Bulger and Joel Edgerton as his FBI handler in a dark, fascinating biopic, marred only by the film's inability to pick a side. R. 122m. BROADWAY.
EVEREST. Shockingly beautiful views of the Himalayas and real-life drama and tragedy aren't enough to get over the mountain of characters whose stories are spread too thin. PG13. 121m. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.
GRANDMA. A tough and funny Lily Tomlin stars as a woman shaking down everyone she knows to raise $600 for her granddaughter to end a pregnancy. Quietly touching, unassuming and entertaining. R. 80m. MINOR.
HOTEL TRANSYLVANIA 2. Adam Sandler voices grandpa Vlad, who's trying to run his inn and hang onto his blended vampire-human family in this animated sequel. PG. 90m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
THE INTERN. Robert DeNiro plays a retiree who returns to work with an internship at an online fashion company. With Anne Hathaway as his new boss. PG13. 121m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
MAZE RUNNER: THE SCORCH TRIALS. Our clear-skinned, teen heroes escape lockdown and battle the middle-aged powers that be in the wider post-apocalyptic dystopia. PG13. 131m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
THE VISIT. Siblings visit creepy, estranged grandparents in the boonies for found-footage scares and unsurprising plot twists in the M. Night Shyamalan picture. PG13. 94m. BROADWAY.
A WALK IN THE WOODS. Robert Redford and Nick Nolte star as old friends testing their knees and their bond by hiking the Appalachian Trail. R. 104m. MINOR.
WAR ROOM. A troubled family prays together and (spoiler alert!) probably stays together. PG. 120m. BROADWAY.
— Jennifer Fumiko Cahill