French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve certainly isn’t the first filmmaker to explore the morally nebulous terrain of the War on Drugs and its corrosive impact on life along our southern border. But he turns out to be one of the most effective in the tense, violent and thought-provoking Sicario.
The Spanish word sicario is Mexican slang for “hitman” and, on the surface, the film tells a simple story of the attempted dethroning of a drug kingpin, the elusive Fausto Alarcon. But he’s not just being pursued by a rival or the Mexican government. He’s also in the crosshairs of a secret U.S.-backed quasi-military force.
By-the-book and no-nonsense Arizona FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) isn’t quite sure what she’s in for when she’s picked for this hush-hush assignment. All she knows is that her new superior, Matt (Josh Brolin), is kind of sketchy, as are the guys she’s now teamed with, especially the brooding and volatile Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro). Her longtime FBI partner, Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya), warns her that something’s not right.
Her suspicions are confirmed when a trip purportedly to El Paso turns into an illegal mission across the border in pursuit of Alarcon (Fort Worth’s Julio Cedillo). The longer the chase goes, the more the line between good guys and bad guys evaporates in the heat of the Mexican desert. And no one — not the American or Mexican governments, not law enforcement on either side, not Mexican citizens caught in the middle, not Kate — is left unsullied.
The most tragic character is Silvio (Maximiliano Hernandez), a small-town Mexican cop whose parallel story at first seems disconnected from Kate’s. But his desire to earn a few bucks and not put his family at risk by offending Alarcon’s foot soldiers puts him on a collision course.
Villeneuve has dealt with political and social issues before — his 2010 film Incendies, which was nominated for the foreign-language Oscar, is partially set in the Middle East — but he doesn’t pound home the message. Working from a script by Taylor Sheridan, he puts the viewer in Kate’s shoes, where she is totally in the dark at first and then slowly realizes what’s happening.
He hasn’t forgotten that he’s making a thriller, and he’s made one that’s both nerve-shatteringly suspenseful and, thanks to noted cinematographer Roger Deakins, gorgeous to watch. It’s a step above his last film, the less satisfying Prisoners with Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal.
Here, the cast is uniformly strong, with Blunt, good in Edge of Tomorrow last year, really coming into her own as a woman in the maddening middle. And Del Toro is at his looming, threatening best.
Matthew Heineman’s Cartel Land, a lauded documentary from earlier this year about the drug war, may be more powerful in dealing with the same subject simply because it’s the real deal. But Sicario is the next best thing.
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Cast: Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, Benicio Del Toro
Rated: R (strong violence, grisly images, strong language)
Running time: 121 min.