South of the border.
As FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) wades deeper into the bleak realities of the Mexican drug war, she is constantly being asked if she’s ready for this. Audiences may wish to ask themselves the same question about Sicario, a tense, violent and uncompromising exposure to those realities – but only if it means they ultimately do choose to go on this wild and woolly trip.
Denis Villeneuve’s latest film opens with the perfect amuse bouche for what’s about to come. Macer, her partner (Daniel Kaluuya) and a team of FBI infiltrators drive a tank through the wall of a suburban Arizona home, eager to surprise a local outpost of Mexico’s most notorious drug cartel. They’re expecting hostages, and have deemed such extreme force the only way to extract them. Instead, they find all the hostages dead and plastered into the walls, bags covering their heads, barely obscuring the indescribable torture that has been visited upon them. Punctuating the whole experience is a booby-trapped explosion in a shed outside, which takes out two of her men. As her ears rings and she wipes away a layer of plaster dust, Macer is determined to track down the men responsible with every resource legally available to her. That places her in a susceptible mindset as a mysterious mercenary in thongs reports to her local bureau office and questions her boss (Victor Garber) about her candidacy for a new, off-the-books assignment. Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) is light on details about what he has in store, and his compadre Alejandro (Benicio del Toro) is even lighter on those details, and even more mysterious. But the message is clear that if they want to get the men truly responsible for the Arizona massacre and countless massacres that occur inside the Mexican border on a daily basis, a few cloak-and-dagger, not entirely legal tactics may be necessary. When Macer soon finds herself part of a convoy unexpectedly entering Juarez, possibly the world’s most violent city, to extract a potential informant, she starts to get an idea how much more hands on this will be than her previous efforts.
Sicario is committed to nothing less than an unflinching look into the moral abyss that is the Mexican drug trade. What happens in the plot is a key way of doing this, but the film’s sharpest tool is its fastidious attention to creating a world that is unquestionably believable. The film’s central set piece involves the aforementioned trip into Juarez, which was actually shot in Mexico City. As Villeneuve captures this convoy speeding determinedly through these streets, past casually ghastly backdrops, it’s accompanied by a score of such distressed percussion and ominous bass that it feels like the very world is being enclosed by foreboding. Through the lens of legendary DP Roger Deakins, even a Juarez Walmart seems sinister, and that’s about the least sinister thing we see. Almost no one watching this will have actually been to Juarez to have it as a point of comparison, but aerial shots of the actual Juarez combine with the dingy decrepitude of Mexico City to create a sense of place like no other. It may be the most stunning example of the film’s commitment to realism, but it’s certainly not the only one.
If Breaking Bad gave us an unusually disturbing look into what exactly Mexican drug cartels are capable of, Sicario ups the ante even further. In this regard, Blunt’s Kate Macer makes an especially effective viewer surrogate. Even though uncovering cartel activity is her business, it becomes clear that she’s only scratched the surface of the real drug war, and the expression on her face as she registers each new piece of information mirrors ours. Blunt has established herself as one of our most reliable actresses, so much so that it seems almost unthinkable that she has yet to be nominated for an Oscar. That drought could end with Sicario, where she has an unusual amount of agency, but is just as tragically the plaything of a system that is so much bigger and more ethically suspect than she could ever comprehend. To be sure, she gets great assistance from del Toro as the impassive Alejandro and Brolin as the gleefully driven Matt, but this is Blunt’s show and she doesn’t disappoint.
But really, it’s Villeneuve’s show. Talk about creative talents establishing themselves as among the best. After the incendiary Incendies, the bleak and uncompromising Prisoners and the enigmatic Enemy, the Canadian director has further solidified his reputation with Sicario. Villeneuve’s approach to filmmaking should give fans who know he’s been entrusted with the reboot of Blade Runner additional reasons to be hopeful. If the studios don’t meddle with him too much – and really, they haven’t so far – he should offer us something just as tense and intense as all of his work to date.