Sicario, directed by Denis Villeneuve, isn’t just one of the best movies about America’s war on drugs since Traffic, it’s also easily one of the best films of the year. Like Villeneuve’s chilling 2013 hit Prisoners, this is a tense, morally ambiguous thriller, but one with significantly higher stakes and far-reaching consequences.
It begins with the horrific discovery of rotting corpses stuffed behind the walls of a nondescript house near the US-Mexico border, the work of a Mexican drug cartel. Soon after, FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) who conducted the raid is drafted into an unnamed government taskforce led by the mysterious Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and his even creepier associate Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro).
The prime objective of the mission is withheld from Kate; hell, she’s not even sure if her rule-bending boss belongs to the CIA or not. But even as harrowing trips are made to Mexico City and back – during one ride, we see dead bodies swinging from bridges, and decapitated heads lined up in a row – things get increasingly murkier and ethics are compromised, leaving Kate unsure of who to trust.
Villeneuve marries robust action scenes into the taut script to create a sense of dread that he douses virtually the entirely film in. It’s like a ticking time bomb waiting to go off any moment. That suspense is further amplified by Roger Deakins’ urgent camerawork and the film’s jittery, ominous score.
Sicario benefits as much from the first-rate performances of its principals, who effectively convey more by what is not said than what is. Brolin does well as the swaggering, wisecracking head spook who is nevertheless impenetrable, and Del Toro’s quiet intensity adds to the film’s overall sense of uneasiness. It’s Blunt though who’s the real star of the film, and the character you’re consistently invested in. So much more than just the-tough-chick-in-an-action-flick, Blunt invests the part with both vulnerability and confidence, giving us a real, flesh-and-blood protagonist not hard to relate to.
The film itself, which suggests that it may be too late to expect that the war on drugs can be won using ‘fair means’, seldom shies from the pessimistic view that there is no triumph and no redemption here. Villeneuve communicates those thoughts compellingly in this relentless film that never lets up.
I’m going with four out of five for Sicario. Don’t miss it.