With “Sicario,” Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve shows yet again what he directs best, and that’s horror movies. Even when he’s operating under the guise of domestic thriller (“Prisoners”), Freudian Hitchcock riff (“Enemy”) or war-on-drugs epic (“Sicario”), the films in this stretch of his career possess the messily portentous timbre of a nightmare.
“Sicario” plunges straight into the murky unknowability of the drug trade at the US-Mexican border. People will complain that the lead, idealistic FBI agent Kate Macy as played effectively by Emily Blunt, is a sexist portrayal. But the sketching of this character is precisely de rigueur for the milieu the film wants to establish, where everyone (perhaps especially women) is but a cog in a political war machine. And Kate’s background as a field agent proves comparatively small potatoes once she’s thrust into the crosshairs of the Mexico-US border.
Who earns our sympathy? From Josh Brolin as the government monkey leading the charge against a drug lord to Benicio Del Toro as the even more shadowy titular assassin doing his bidding, the answer is no one.
The film opens with a genuine corker, a drug-raid sequence, slickly handled by Villeneuve, as Kate leads a team through the drywall of a cartel-owned Arizona house to find dozens of decaying corpses strung up and sheathed in plastic. Things go awry. But Kate’s expert maneuvering of the situation lands her a plum assignment in the boys’ club of a high-ops task force with, she begins to suspect, ties to the CIA.
The operation, steered by Matt Graver (Brolin), takes her to Juárez, a hotbed of trigger-happy narco-terror that Kate is unprepared for. Aided by FBI chum Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya), Kate manages to glean some power from knowing she’s a pawn in a game, as the borderlands operation closes in on a mysterious cartel bigwig named Manuel Diaz (Bernardo P. Saracino). Kate’s insistence on playing by the book, rather than by the subterfuge of her cohorts, lands her in a dangerous minefield—and on Diaz’s watch list. In a frustratingly predictable hiccup moment—well-directed as it may be—Kate waltzes drunkenly right into her own trap after picking up a stranger in a bar.
Though “Sicario” has a definite beginning, middle and end, Villeneuve isn’t interested in cozy, comfy three-act armature (neither is Taylor Sheridan’s script). In its terrifying final stretches, the film smoothly departs first into a kind of “Zero Dark Thirty”-style stealth underground drug raid told almost entirely through night-vision lenses, and then it wades into old-fashioned, “No Country for Old Men” blood-and-revenge territory. With a crucial shift in perspective from Kate’s eyes to Alejandro’s (Del Toro), we begin to understand the truly enormous sprawl of this particular picture of the drug trade. And then we know nothing.
Paralleling the film’s main through-line is the story of a Mexican state
police officer (Maximiliano Hernández) with a wife and son who brings
him eggs every morning. His skin in this game doesn’t crystallize until late in the film, and it’s wrenching.
Also essential to the film’s anguished, feverish, apocalyptic atmosphere are cinematographer Roger Deakins, doing some of his best work, and composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, whose ominous orchestral rumblings build dread like a fire, vaulting every corner of the room. You walk out with an ambient paranoia jangling in the head.
“Sicario” played the Toronto International Film Festival this weekend before opening from Lionsgate on September 18.