Though Sicario has faded as an Oscar frontrunner, it deserves consideration in almost all categories, especially Best Cinematography (where it will likely earn another nomination for Roger Deakins), Best Score, Best Director, Best Actress, and Best Supporting Actor. This article focuses on Best Supporting Actor.
Denis Villeneuve‘s pulse-pounding thriller Sicario drew inevitable comparisons to Steven Soderbergh‘s Oscar-winning drug saga Traffic. Though the movies are very different, the comparison is not unwarranted. Both are exciting, both are shot by amazing cinematographers (the legendary Roger Deakins shot Sicario, Soderbergh himself shot Traffic), and both offer more than just obvious thoughts about drug trafficking and the people it affects. Ultimately, Traffic is the superior movie, offering a kaleidoscopic view of the consequences of the drug trade. While Sicario follows one main through line and examines the impact on a specific set of characters, Traffic effectively jumps from one story to another, adding layers of dramatic and thematic complexity like ripples in a pool. However, Traffic cannot match the overall intensity of the more focused story told in Sicario. Emily Blunt stars as Kate Macer, an FBI Special Weapons and Tactics team member who, after a terrible discovery following a drug raid, is recruited by special advisor to the DOD Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) to help bring down leaders of a Mexican drug cartel, notably a man named Manuel Diaz. What follows is a taut thriller, more gripping than maybe any movie I have ever seen.
The performances by the three leads are nothing short of spectacular. Macer is a strong female lead and Blunt communicates her intelligence and her naivete with equal aplomb. Brolin is darkly comic as the enigmatic Graver, showcasing the character’s coldblooded nature with his steely eyes and blunt responses while playing up his arrogance with gum-chewing nonchalance. Yet, as great as they both are, the movie is stolen by Traffic Best Supporting Oscar winner, Benicio Del Toro, whose Alejandro is inscrutable (sensitive yet unfeeling, moral yet unethical, terrifying yet comforting), even though the audience eventually feels like they understand him perfectly well. It’s a well-written role that Del Toro nails with subtlety.
As the Oscar nominations have come closer and closer to being announced, Del Toro has moved further and further down the list of likely nominees. It is a shame. Del Toro deserves to have his name called on January 14th when the nominees are announced. It is so difficult to play a character that audiences sympathize with, yet are frightened of. Alejandro quietly seethes in every scene, foreshadowing some eventual revelations about him, but he also forges a believable bond with Blunt’s Macer. As far as the Academy Awards, the “leads” in both Spotlight and The Big Short (especially Michael Keaton and Christian Bale, respectively) have moved the the front of the Best Supporting Actor pack. It’s true that those movies feature beautiful acting, but ensemble acting where the subtlety of the performances is what makes them so great. Del Toro is part of an excellent ensemble too and his performance is brilliant in its subtlety as well, but he has a lot more shades of emotion to play. This is not to take anything away from the actors in those films, who are legitimately amazing; I was simply more impressed by Del Toro’s smoldering intensity and effortless monstrousness. There is an argument that it is harder to play a normal person than someone like Alejandro. I often agree. Not this time, however. If Benicio Del Toro’s name is called as one of the Best Supporting Actor nominees, I will be ecstatic. It was arguably the best performance I saw last year, in one of the most well-crafted movies.
[Click here for our second Oscar Watch article on Mad Max: Fury Road]