Sicario helps address post-Oscar slump

For a movie fan, the weeks immediately following the Oscars can test cinema patience. After so many strong films fill Academy Award season, tolerating weaker entries in theaters can be challenging. Fortunately, some nominees that may have been overlooked when first released are now available online, on demand and on DVD.
Sicario should have been a contender for more Oscars. In a less competitive year, this intense thriller about the drug trade between the US and Mexico might have landed in the running for Best Picture. While the film was nominated for Sound Editing, Cinematography and Music, a different year might have seen it compete for Oscars for Actress (Emily Blunt), Supporting Actor (Benicio del Toro) and for Taylor Sheridan’s taut screenplay. But this was a tough year for such a thoughtful thriller to break through.

On the surface, Sicario looks like what we might expect from a film about drug traffic. The great cinematographer Roger Deakins – still an Oscar bridesmaid after 13 nominations – makes the land look dusty and the air feel hot. Yes, we are on that border where nothing seems to get in the way of how people shuttle drugs and money in both directions. And we meet all the characters we expect including devious cartel bosses, focused hit men (for which “sicario” is slang in the drug world) and well-intentioned federal agents who want to do the right thing. But any resemblance between this and other films on the topic is coincidental. From its first frame, Sicario is an original thriller that never relies on what we expect. It defines its world one moment at a time.

After an opening that sizzles, director Denis Villeneuve gives us one thrilling action sequence after another, each beautifully shot by Deakins and scored by Johann Johannsson. As visually compelling as these scenes may be, however, what makes them work is how we get to know the characters on center stage. Blunt – in her finest screen work to date – turns what could be a familiar character (the driven yet vulnerable FBI agent who may be in over her head – think Jodie Foster in Silence of the Lambs) into a fascinating woman of layers, questions and uncertain intentions. Because she brings such captivating ambiguity to the narrative – without assurance of who may be a villain or hero – we get to spend the movie guessing. And that’s fun. While Sicario is serious about its content, moviemakers Sheridan and Villeneuve never forget they are making a movie. Their focus on what we experience – by taking us inside what the characters confront – makes this film much more than its chases and explosions. This is a meaningful look at what it may take to stop overwhelming destruction.

Why didn’t Oscar pay more attention? Maybe the Academy already had an action film to honor – Mad Max: Thunder Road – or voters may have remembered giving Oscars to the similarly-themed Traffic several years ago. Or, perhaps, Sicario requires too much thinking. This is not an obvious film; its layers present only after we explore. But it’s well worth the effort. And now you can enjoy this memorable film from the comfort of home.


  • Content: High. This thrilling look at what it may take to slow or stop the flow of drugs and money is now available for viewing at home.

  • Entertainment: High. Thanks to writer Taylor Sheridan and director Denis Villeneuve the movie reaches beyond its familiar story to offer exceptional entertainment for older viewers.

  • Message: High. Because Sheridan and Villeneuve reach beyond the thrilling action sequences – to examine the rich characters – the movie becomes more than an exciting roller coaster ride. It has something to say.

  • Relevance: High. Any opportunity to discover a movie this well conceived and executed – and deserving of more attention at Oscar time – is well spent.

  • Opportunity for Dialogue: High. From the characters to the action to the message, Sicario offers a lot to discuss with older teenagers. But, with its violence and language, this is not a film for the entire family.

(Sicario is rated R for “strong violence, grisly images, and language.” The film runs 121 minutes.)

4.5 Popcorn Buckets

How the movies can portray drug trafficking
With striking visuals, fascinating characters and a relevant message, Sicario revisits the familiar territory in the movies reserved for films about drugs, money and the bad situations they create.

While the film strikingly stands on its own, its familiar content reminds us of similarly-themed movies from the past. What Sicario accomplishes in its two taut hours of screen time is special indeed. And so are some of the films it brings to memory.

Traffic (2000)

This epic look at how governments fail to control drug and money flow won an Oscar for director Steven Soderbergh back in 2001. Based on a British miniseries, the movie brilliantly explores the impact of the war drugs on people from all layers of life, from men who pretend to understand its realities to those who live in fierce denial to those who make it easy for others to believe progress is made. While Soderbergh refuses to take sides, his camera cannot lie. And, in this drug war, we are all in the fight.

Scarface (1983)

Al Pacino’s magnetic turn as a man who believes he can be more than life should deliver reaches beyond the conventions of recreating the drug traffic of the period. Yes, director Brian De Palma offers the expected elements. And, yes, the guns are loud and explosions are bright. But it’s the people who make the difference to this story as De Palma explores what’s behind the outrageous things they do to make sordid dreams come true. At the center, Pacino offers one of his most surprising performances, never lapsing into the mannerisms that can undermine his weaker portrayals.

Midnight Express (1978)

One of the treasures of Istanbul is a hotel that was once a prison. Of its inmates over the years, few became as notorious as Billy Hayes, a college student from the U.S. who served time after he was caught smuggling drugs out of Turkey. What Hayes faces – and what he learns – elevate this story of misguided actions into a compelling look at how people can rationalize almost anything they do if they believe their reasoning deeply enough. Director Alan Parker focuses on the detail of Hayes’ experience to help us see what this young man could become as we learn to believe in who he is.

The French Connection (1971)

Years after this film won big at the Oscars, this Best Picture of the Year still thrills with the excitement of its visuals and the depth of its characters. Gene Hackman – who was named Best Actor – shines as a New York City undercover detective who uses every possible way to bust the people behind transporting large amounts of heroin to the U.S. While the narrative can be predictable, director William Friedkin uses the camera in extraordinary ways to capture the nuance of familiar situations. And the chase sequence through the city remains a classic.

Goodfellas (1990)

Leave it to director Martin Scorsese to deliver a definitive look at the underworld’s fascination with drugs. This recap of the life of gangster Henry Hill explores the impact of power and powder on a man searching for simplistic answers. Rarely a subtle filmmaker, Scorsese uses every visual trick in the book to paint a complete picture of a man artificially elevated by the high that he seeks and the money that pays the way. While such movies rarely deliver happy endings, Scorsese shows us the dark side of negative dreams.

American Gangster (2007)
Director Ridley Scott – the filmmaker behind last year’s The Martian – breathes new life into the stories of the underworld in this thrilling take on the drug traffic in 1970s Manhattan. Denzel Washington delivers the best of his recent performances as a man who pretends to regret his actions while carefully playing the role he writes for himself. The great Ruby Dee won an Oscar nomination for her heartbreaking turn as a loving mother who wants to believe her son can do no wrong. Sure.

Thanks to movies, we can learn much about this issue than conventional news reports can share. And be entertained, too.

See you at the movies.