The war on drugs may be a cinematic road well-travelled, but never with as much stomach-churning immediacy as Denis Villeneuve’s visceral and suffocating procedural.
There’s a beautiful darkness to Villeneuve’s work that has set him apart in recent years, from his 2011 breakthrough Incendies to his more recent American pictures Prisoners and Enemy (both 2013).
Whilst the surface is often hypnotic, the director’s raison d’être comes from exploring the ugly duality, mistrust and hidden darkness scratching to break free and in Sicario these themes are front and centre.
Emily Blunt plays Arizona-based FBI agent Kate Macer, whose impressiveness in the field gets her noticed by Matt Grover (Josh Brolin), a Department of Defense operative of murky jurisdiction who recruits Kate to join a special task force aimed at bringing to justice the drug cartel bosses responsible for a charnel house the FBI stumbled onto.
The search very quickly takes Kate across the border to Juárez in Mexico where she discovers she’s in way over her head and is being led a merry dance by Grover and his even shadier partner Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro); a man whose past is the task force’s future.
From the first foreboding strains of Jóhann Jóhannsson’s apocalyptic score, it’s clear Sicario isn’t messing around and Taylor Sheridan’s script refuses to spoonfeed the exposition; challenging you to keep up.
Kate is our way into this unfolding nightmare, challenging those around her to tell her what the hell is going on. However, it soon becomes clear that she – and we – are only going to be told information a need-to-know basis, while the jarheads she’s paired with are riding the wave of death and destruction and following orders.
Paired with the maestro that is cinematographer Roger Deakins, Villeneuve’s dark vision of a land fit only for wolves is brought stunningly to the screen; whether it be Kate looking out onto a Mexican cityscape tearing itself apart through savage and inhuman violence, or the eerie shot of soldiers slowly disappearing below a darkening sky.
The film occasionally cuts to aerial shots of the tiny shadow of a plane gliding over the Mexican landscape, or of a convoy of cars snaking through the perilous streets of Juárez to underscore just how insignificant an impact the task force are having against the multi-billion dollar industry that is the Mexican drug trade.
Despite the scale of the war being fought, however, small victories are possible and this is where Grover and Gillick choose to focus their efforts – after all, the tiniest cracks can sometimes bring down the whole dam.
As well as being a procedural drama, Sicario is also an (literally) explosive crime thriller that features some of the most white-knuckle action sequences you’ll see all year. A traffic jam on the Mexican/U.S. border is almost unbearably tense as Kate and the task force try to determine if they are under direct threat, while an ambush on a tunnel partially filmed using night vision and infra-red cameras is a real masterclass (the POV shot of a knife-wielding solider descending into the tunnel is like something out of a horror film).
In a superlative cast, Blunt and del Toro are stupendous, with Blunt especially dialling it back and letting the physicality of the part do the job. Blunt has come an awful long way as an actor in the past few years and gives Kate a terrified vulnerability, matched only by a stubbornness to see it through despite her better judgement.
Del Toro, meanwhile, is the best he’s been in years; offering little snippets of what’s going on under the monosyllabic exterior (a trembling hand whilst asleep suggests something’s not right), while being a badass when he needs to be.
Sicario is what cinema is all about – an intelligent and visually arresting exploration of a waking nightmare that grips tight around the throat and doesn’t let go.