“Sicario” means “hitman,” and like the titular character the film is a bleak, disturbing plunge into those murky depths of America’s Drug War, where hawkish foreign policy has set its sights on the audacious cartels that have taken hold in Mexico’s bleeding heartland. Anchored with taut action sequences and a tremendous cast led by Emily Blunt, in perhaps her best screen performance to date, Denis Villeneuve’s world of grey is not for the faint of heart, but it makes for one of the best films of the year.
Blunt is Kate Macer, a field-tested, by-the-books FBI up-and-comer who volunteers for an inter-agency task force to go after the drug lord discarding body bags in Arizona. She’s been witness to barbarism in her own backyard, and she has to know why, despite the fact she doesn’t know why she’s really along for the ride. A hodge-podge of everything from Special Forces to possibly CIA, it’s a team with apparent carte blanche to “dramatically overreact” to increased cartel activity, no matter the consequences. In fact, the more consequences, the better. Their job is to create chaos for the drug runners, collateral damage be damned. Leading them is a jocular agent named Matt Graver, played by the eternally smirking Josh Brolin, one of two men on this mission playing things close to the vest. The other is Benicio Del Toro as a former prosecutor named Alejandro, now a gravelly South American fixer whose role is a mystery to Kate until it’s far too late. Her sense of justice, solid, unwavering, is adorned for all to see, while Alejandro’s is buried six feet under. Kate is the audience proxy, always questioning, always checking for crooks and spooks who don’t belong. Alejandro is the X factor, a third wheel who’s obviously more than a translator as he helps gun down several cartel assassins in one hair-raising sequence at the border, and Del Toro delivers a masterclass in subtlety, conveying an unnerving stew of intensity and tranquility with spare dialogue. When Lionsgate announced a potential spin-off revolving around this enigmatic character, it sounded ludicrous, but not anymore. He’s a curmudgeonly anti-hero when he pops off three shots to three goons in less than two seconds, but he’s a horrifying monster when the ends justify the means, such as murdering an entire family. That’s fascinating. However, these grisly affairs sometimes make you ask for more. It’s easy to expect some profound revelation, resolution, or solution from Villeneuve and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan regarding the drug war, but there’s not, because right now one doesn’t exist. Besides the obvious futility of it all, “Sicario” is about the moral quandaries we face when reacting to a foreign enemy, something not at all unique to this particular war. According to Villeneuve, the question is “do we need to become a monster like them?” This is echoed through gorgeous cinematography, be it the harsh Arizona yellows and buzzing flourescents that dominate earlier scenes stateside, or the yin-yang of orange and black that battle at the edges and backgrounds of every frame in those later scenes set in the Mexican outback. Greatest D.P. of all time Roger Deakins paints with a dark brush, blanketing the team with inky shadows during one climactic crescendo as they descend from a hill with a pink horizon, the last vestiges of sunset, into a desert tunnel where the sun never shines, all the while wielding military-grade armory and Nintendo-grade night vision goggles. Visually, it’s a potent metaphor for our moral descent when we choose to combat violence with violence, when fathers caught in the middle trying to make a living are sacrificed for…something, or nothing.
In terms of the plot, there are fewer echoes, Villenueve and Sheridan seemingly leaving the bigger picture to interpretation. Graver’s third-act monologue comes close though, outlining the desperation at the root of compromise and potential corruption. In the midst of playing God with cartel politics, he says “until someone finds a way to stop twenty percent of America from putting this shit up their nose, order is the best we can hope for.” “Sicario” doesn’t bother brandishing a speakerphone to tell us something we already know, that the drug war is a mistake, but it does show us the conflicted hubris at the heart of that mistake.