Terse, tense, and thrumming like a pounding drum, Sicario is a smart, seamy, sweaty foray into the netherworld of drug trafficking; a trip-wired, arthouse/grindhouse ambush of disorienting ambiguity; and a nihilistic existential nightmare without boundaries. It’s a violent action thriller to die for.
Caught in the lawless border area between the United States and Mexico, Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), an idealistic FBI agent, discovers a house of corpses in Arizona after a tireless string of raids. She is enlisted by a flip-flop wearing “DoD adviser” (Josh Brolin) to join an elite government task force in the escalating war against the drug cartels. With the help of an enigmatic consultant with a uncertain past (Benicio del Toro), the team sets out on a clandestine journey of disruption, forcing Kate to confront her limits of doing whatever it takes to survive.
Blunt, a remarkable actress with a series of unremarkable films (The Adjustment Bureau, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen), finally landed a trio of roles that were worthy of her talents: in Your Sister’s Sister, she demonstrated a flair for indie character drama; in Looper, she played an effective sidekick to Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt; and as Rita Vrataski, she stole Edge of Tomorrow out of the hands of Hollywood’s biggest movie star, Tom Cruise.
Sicario is the best addition to Blunt’s filmography since her stunning breakout work as Tamsin in My Summer of Love. As Kate, Blunt is an engaging, convincing, and devastatingly moral heroine in an immoral world. She ranks as Cannes’ second great feminine force to be reckoned with, after Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road.
Brolin, merry and realistic and decisive and harshly vocal when shutting down Kate’s inquisitions, gives another memorable supporting performance to rank with No Country for Old Men and Inherent Vice. Yet it is del Toro, Brolin’s twice-over co-star and a previous Oscar winner, that coils like a snake, steals the show, and flattens all competition. Lethal, damned, and entirely terrifying as a lawless fugitive that manipulates the law to his advantage, del Toro puts an unforgettable stamp on the character, and with some help from Blunt, single-handedly drives home the final satisfying twenty minutes.
Québécois director Denis Villeneuve has had a similarly rocky start to his career: his staggering debut Incendies was one of the best films of 2010 and received an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film; his back-to-back follow-ups, the Jake Gyllenhaal-starring Prisoners and Enemy, were far more divisive and held to be “mired in the dreary.” Sicario finds him firmly back on form, with sharp direction generating stellar performances from his cast.
With Prisoners, Villeneuve began an essential collaboration with best-in-the-business director of photography Roger Deakins (A Serious Man, Skyfall). In Sicario, Deakins’ visuals are exemplary, and combined with Villeneuve’s dizzying action prowess and a pulsing score from Jóhann Jóhannsson (The Theory of Everything), these elements make for a film of impeccable look and sound. Indeed, Sicario’s rhythms are something to behold.
The script is more of a mixed bag: while the dialogue is mostly on target (Brolin’s winking response line “To dramatically overreact” is a keeper, as are most of del Toro’s no-nonsense explanations/justifications for the carnage at hand), the narrative is thin and predictable, and Blunt’s character is massively underdeveloped, even shunted to the sidelines once Brolin and del Toro are brought into focus. It is this lack of follow-through that distinguishes Sicario slightly from Chinatown, Traffic, and the greatest of the genre.
Still, it remains hard to fault a film with such riveting suspense sequences as the one that transpires in the “El Paso area” and culminates in a shootout, or one that contains eye-popping night-vision and infrared lensing, or one that ranks as Villeneuve and Blunt’s best work since their beginnings, or one that offers another spellbinding del Toro performance, or one that grapples with knotty questions and refuses to present easy solutions. There may be no triumph or redemption in Sicario’s “land of wolves,” but there is good cinema to be found in spending a few hours there.
Sicario reaffirms one of the oldest of the medium’s truths: without great storytelling, it’s impossible to make a great film. But with great directing, acting, and cinematography, it’s very possible to make a strong one. Sicario is among the year’s best.