Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario gives us a trifecta of characters who firmly believe they are doing what is right when it comes to our country’s war on drugs. They are frequently diverging opinions yet this is a picture smart enough to let the audience decide who is right. It’s also a technical masterpiece with its direction and screenplay sometimes reaching close to that level.
Meaning “hitman” in Spanish, Sicario plucks FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) from her current stateside activities to teaming with shadowy government officials (CIA?) to combat the brutal Mexican drug cartels. She believes her work in our borders isn’t making much of a difference and the prospect of this new venture is enticing. Kate is soon introduced to the cocky Matt (Josh Brolin) and Alejandro (Benicio del Toro), who head up a squad that also consists of military operatives who’ve seen action in the Middle East. The team is tasked with obtaining results and Kate and her partner Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya) soon learn just how far they’ll go to get them. Kate serves as the film’s moral compass in many ways, but Matt and Alejandro’s reasonings are not without merit. As they see it, nothing they do can possibly compare to the vicious acts of those they hunt and the end justifies the means.
As Sicario unfolds, we are witness to some brutal violence that is quick, realistic, and not at all glamorized. Viewers who have watched Villeneuve’s previous effort, 2013’s Prisoners, should know what they’re in for. With much credit to cinematographer Roger Deakins, this includes some startling set pieces including a showdown at the US/Mexican border that is intensely breathtaking. Even a convoy ride through Juarez is hair raising. There’s another sequence in an underground tunnel that is a triumph of camera work and lighting.
Taylor Sheridan’s script is not overly concerned with character development and we don’t know much about its lead subjects. Blunt is able to fashion her determined and lonely agent into a fascinating individual. We may have some trouble at first accepting the notion that her character would be placed in the situation she’s in, but this material is solid enough that I quickly forgave that. del Toro elevates his role into something even more special. His mysterious character’s motivations are revealed slowly to the audience and the screenplay smartly develops him this way to maximum effect. He’s not a man who wastes words and you hang on the ones he expresses. In many ways, Brolin has the least to work with but his swagger along with occasionally needed humor provide a bit of levity.
We have seen Steven Soderbergh’s 2000 pic Traffic take a more expansive look at this subject (it also earned Mr. del Toro a Supporting Actor Oscar). Sicario is more limited in its approach, but that does not take away from its power. Villeneuve and company know this war on drugs is complex at best and not winnable at worst. The primary trio here are working their way through it. Some have their tunnel vision set while another is attempting to make sense of it all.
***1/2 (out of four)