There’s a much talked about sequence near the beginning of Sicario’s second act in which a mission of questionable legality goes south at the border between El Paso and Juarez. It’s a nail-biter; an expertly crafted sequence of preparation and aftermath that obliterates the nerves. The rub? At that point, you’re still recovering from the film’s haunting opening moments, and with nearly an hour and a half left to go… your armrest will never be the same.
The film tells the story of Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), an FBI agent recruited for an elite Government taskforce that aims to deliver a crippling blow against a particularly nasty Mexican drug cartel. Led by a shadowy government agent named Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), the squad moves beyond its moral and legal jurisdiction in order to force high-level targets out into the open. Along the way, Kate grows increasingly suspicious of Graver’s partner Alejandro (Benecio Del Toro), a man whose secrecy rivals that of the cartel.
If that sounds engaging, then buckle up, because that summary barely scratches the surface of Sicario. This is a complex and densely plotted film that moves at a lightning clip. It’s never impossible to follow, but if there’s one criticism to be leveled, it’s that the film rarely stops to breathe. Ironically, the film’s most serene and pensive moments come to pass immediately before the chaos ensues; the calm before the storm, I suppose.
Fortunately, the characters are multi-layered and engaging, buffered by grounded performances across the board. Emily Blunt deserves particular props for simultaneously playing Kate as both badass and out of her element. It’s a brutal and thankless role that’s absolutely central to the film.
The experience of watching Sicario feels a bit like Zero Dark Thirty by way of No Country For Old Men. These characters inhabit a lawless world as barren as its landscapes, and not unlike No Country, there are moments in which the film feels more like a western than a thriller. Much of the action plays out on the border between Texas and Mexico, and from Josh Brolin’s grit, to Roger Deakins’ breathtakingly desolate photography, fans of the Coen Brothers masterpiece will feel right at home.
Another possible influence centers around the aforementioned character of Kate, whose quandry is not unlike the one faced by Jessica Chastain’s Maya in Kathryn Bigelow's 2012 award-winning thriller. Both characters follow their good intentions down roads of increasing moral ambiguity. The hope is that the ends will eventually justify the means; the fear is that they will not. Combine this with the fact that Sicario contains at least a couple of sequences that rival Zero Dark Thirty’s climax for sheer tension, and… well, you’ve got the general idea.
That's not to say that Sicario's script is derivative; it isn't. Such lofty comparisons serve only to highlight the fact that this is one heck of a movie. It’s a grueling deep dive into the conflict between law enforcement and the drug cartels of Mexico, and while I’m no expert, a sobering sense of realism prevails throughout. Every twist and turn seeps with moral ambiguity, amounting to a sense of dread that lingers beyond the film's final moments.
It’s thought provoking stuff, which is unsurprising given that such shades of grey have become the trademarks of Denis Villeneuve’s varied filmography. He’s best known for the Oscar-winning Incendies, and the 2013 neo-noir Prisoners, both of which thrill and unsettle in equal measure. Given that he’s recently been announced as the director of the upcoming sequel to Blade Runner, now would seem the perfect time to hop aboard the Villeneuve train. As for Sicario, it’s one of the year’s best films.