Powered by frighteningly intense set pieces and powerhouse performances by Emily Blunt and Benecio Del Toro, Sicario may just be the best Hollywood film yet focused on the ongoing war with Mexican drug cartels and the toll taken on those caught in its crossfire. Cleverly incorporating a number of alternative visual techniques to place audiences literally in the thick of some of the most dangerous situations imaginable, it’s a harrowing, grisly journey down a rabbit hole of hidden agendas, half-truths, full-on deceptions and hollow rationalizations for levels of violence that are sure to make anyone question the very humanity of its perpetrators. It’s a film that’s full from beginning to end with a sense of dread, as though no matter how bad things on screen might be at the moment, audiences are only minutes away from it getting much, much worse. Thus, there’s simply no possible way of taking your eyes off it, even for a second, once you’re drawn in.
Blunt plays Arizona FBI agent Kate Macer, whose spent her career thus far kicking down doors and leading tactical teams in kidnap-response situations. For Kate, her work is straight-forward and black and white: go to location, follow protocols, assess and resolve the situation, bring her team back safely. But a gruesome discovery by her team within a house they raided in search of Cartel kidnap victims leads to Kate being asked to volunteer for an interagency task force led by glib and highly unorthodox Department of Defense consultant Matt Graver (Josh Brolin). Graver, along with fellow DoD consultant Alejandro (Del Toro), have in mind to hit back at the cartel responsible for the house of horrors Kate stumbled upon, and so she agrees to join their efforts, but it’s not long before she realizes that the world she’s entering is a whole lot grayer than the one she’s used to.
With her new partners sharing little of their information or specific goals and seemingly even less inclined to make arrests as the operation proceeds, Kate’s resolve to see justice done in regards to her case is sorely tested as Graver and Alejandro’s methods look more and more like those employed by the enemy. The three all agree on one thing: the murders, the beheadings and mutilations, the civilians, including children, being butchered on the streets of cities in both Mexico and the U.S. Southwest — someone has to be held responsible for it all. But how does one do that in a way that those responsible truly feel it, that it actually makes a difference? The answer to that question may prove to be more than even the dedicated Agent Macer can live with.
Director Denis Villanueve (Prisoners) is certainly no stranger to stories focused on ethical ambiguities and how different people in different situations define what’s “necessary” to solve a problem. In Sicario, he takes on telling yet another of these kinds of stories in a place that’s full of them, the U.S.-Mexico border, the source of a growing number of true crime horror stories coming to light in the mainstream media. Drug-related violence, gang wars, illegal immigration, governmental and institutional corruption on both sides of the border, all combine in that particular corner of North America to create a Badlands-like region where respect for the rule of law seems only a dream, a long, lost ideal that those in the midst of all that death on a daily basis haven’t the luxury of living by. Villanueve takes audiences on a journey into that world using Blunt’s character Kate as their viewpoint and their moral compass. As she’s written in the script by Taylor Sheridan (TV’s “Sons of Anarchy“), Kate is the character whose reality is probably closest to that of the viewer, even with her training and experience as someone used to dealing with criminals. Her humanity, despite the nature of her work and who it brings her in contact with, is still intact at the film’s start, and so as she comes face to face with horror after grim horror, the blows she takes, both physical and psychological, are sure to be felt by audiences, as well.
Of course, none of that works if the performer in question isn’t any good, which certainly is not the case here. Blunt, a versatile performer whose work in recent years has ranged from gritty sci-fi action (Looper, Edge of Tomorrow) to Broadway screen adaptation (Into the Woods), delivers work here that should make Oscar voters sit up and take notice when the time comes, effectively conveying the emotional battle Kate wages within herself between her principles and the growing sense that those principles and the rules built around them mean almost nothing in the face of this particular enemy. Blunt’s character forms one end of a morality spectrum in the film, by far the lonelier end, as the film’s other main characters, Brolin’s grinning, sardonic Graves and Del Toro’s serious-as-death Alejandro chief among them, firmly occupying the other end. That’s not to say that Villanueve has Brolin and Del Toro play their characters as soulless, morality-free caricatures running amok with government sanction — they’re simply pragmatists who know their enemy. Del Toro’s take on Alejandro is particularly captivating, as his interactions with Kate reveal an emotional depth and complexity that belies the brutal pragmatism that characterizes his other actions.
In the course of capturing all that subtle nuance and character-driven tension, Villanueve and his director of photography Roger Deakins (Prisoners, Skyfall) also capture some truly breathtaking visuals of the dark places and borderland settings to which the characters journey, including footage shot around and over Ciudad Juarez in Mexico, which just a few short years ago was the homicide capital of the world and remains one of the world’s most dangerous cities for civilians and journalists thanks to militarized cartel gangs and federal police waging war day-to-day on its streets. Villanueve’s narrative lens also lingers over the vast swaths of desolate terrain along the border and between the cities where the battles are waged, capturing their beauty at different times of day and night, and that beauty always intruded upon by men and their instruments of conflict. Case in point: the nighttime black-ops raid that is the film’s most critical set-piece, shot partly with thermal vision and night vision cameras, is easily one of the most harrowing, suspenseful sequences seen on film this year, and even it begins with a gorgeous panoramic shot of signature American southwest desert at dusk, vibrant with color and beauty as it slowly gives way to the darkness that will shroud the carnage to come.
All in all, because it’s hardly a “feel-good” story and not exactly a great time at the movies, Sicario may be hard for audiences to describe as an enjoyable experience once the credits roll. But in all likelihood they’ll be just as hard pressed to say it didn’t have an impact on them, or that they weren’t on the edge of their seat the whole time. It’s one of those films that, given the chance, will grab hold of you and not let go for all the reasons listed above and more. It’s easily one of the year’s best, and it deserves your attention and your attendance.
Starring Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin, Victor Garber, Jon Bernthal, Daniel Kaluuya, Jeffrey Donovan. Directed by Denis Villanueve.
Running Time: 121 minutes
Rated R for strong violence, grisly images, and language.