With a title as unwieldy as Sicario, Denis Villeneuve’s white-knuckle descent into the dark depths of the U.S./Mexico drug war doesn’t seem to be interested in cosseting or pandering to the audience. A title card at the beginning of the film gives two definitions for the word. The first refers to the zealots in ancient Jerusalem who hunted and killed the Roman invaders. The second, and more to the point of this remarkable movie set along our country’s southwest border, defines it as the Mexican word for “hit man.” With that out of the way, it’s best to prepare yourself for a buzz saw of mayhem that doesn’t let up for the next 120 minutes.
The movie’s bravura opening sequence is a marvel of action and exposition. Emily Blunt, playing an FBI agent named Kate Macer who heads up a kidnap-response squad, is leading a raid on a house in Chandler, Arizona. She and her team are looking for hostages, but after a chaotically tense shootout, she discovers only dead bodies – rows and rows of them wrapped in plastic tarps and stacked upright behind the hideout’s walls like ghoulish mummies. Who are these doomed souls? And who’s behind this gruesome tableau of death?
The answer comes soon enough when Kate is summoned to an intra-agency debriefing led by Josh Brolin’s flip-flop-wearing black ops cowboy. Sitting around the table are feds much higher on the government-clearance foodchain than her. Questions are asked of Kate, but this is really a job interview. Is she interested in saddling up with Brolin’s covert operation to find the Mexican cartel kingpin responsible? Her answer is, more or less, “When do I start?” Brolin’s response is, more or less, “You already have.”
Like Steven Soderbergh’s sprawling 2000 war-on-drugs epic Traffic, Sicario is a film about the hopelessness of the now. But rather than pull the camera back to explore the global reach of this scourge as Soderbergh did, Villeneuve zooms in on one frontier: the porous border between the U.S. and Mexico. The game plan of Brolin’s shadow agency is to lure a big fish named Manuel Diaz by kidnapping his brother from a Juarez jail, bringing him back to the States, and interrogating him in an “enhanced” fashion. This, says Brolin, will rattle Manuel’s cage and make him screw up enough that he can be caught.
Villeneuve’s previous film was 2013’s Prisoners, a quieter and more interior meditation on violence and vengeance. As bleak and gripping as that film was, Sicario feels even more assured. With an assist by the great cinematographer Roger Deakins, Villeneuve stages Brolin and company’s south-of-the-border bodysnatching with an almost sadistic level of suspense. As Brolin and Blunt speed in black SUVs through the streets of Juarez – a grim ghostland where naked corpses hang from overpasses as warnings to anyone thinking about going against the cartels – you’re waiting for a timebomb to detonate. And it’s only after you’ve exhaled and fooled yourself into thinking you’re safe that the explosion goes off.
Another link to Traffic is the presence of Benicio Del Toro as a sleepy-eyed spectre named Alejandro. Alejandro used to be a prosecutor in a previous life, but his role now in Brolin’s murky orbit is only revealed late in the game. Blunt’s Kate becomes the unit’s – and Sicario’s – conscience. Which is too bad for her, because neither is really soliciting one. After all, Brolin and Del Toro gave up the charade of playing by the rule of law long ago. Their M.O. is moral relativism. But Kate’s not so cavalier about scrapping right and wrong. Then again, maybe she just hasn’t spent enough time in Juarez. Blunt makes all of this play out on her face with subtly and nuance. Fans of the first half of her career when she was playing hilariously bitchy fashionistas and corseted love interests are only starting to get used to the idea of her as a can-do action heroine in movies like Sicario and last year’s Edge of Tomorrow. She’s a stony-faced badass with the cheekbones of a catwalk model. And even if Blunt’s Kate is written as a little too naïve, it’s hard to fault her performance.
With a taut and timely screenplay by Taylor Sheridan, Sicario is a brilliant action thriller with the smarts of a message movie. And the message is this: Are we willing to bend the rules and sell our souls to fight a war that will probably never be won? Before you answer that question, see this film. A