The concept known as rule of law helps people sleep at night. Yet if the storyline of “Sicario” is even a shadow of the truth, the world at large doesn’t operate under rule of law. Rather, it’s evil, and at times, good must not only allow iniquity to do its work but crawl into bed with it – so those of us who live under the illusion of rule of law can sleep at night.
I found “Sicario” to be more frightening than the films typically released this time of year. Ghosts that go bump in the night and lunatics that hack up teenagers are scary, but the drug cartel in this movie fills the walls of an American suburban house with over five dozen corpses and rigs the place to explode when law enforcement arrives to investigate – all without blinking at the cost in human lives. That’s scary stuff.
It’s also what FBI Special Weapons and Tactics Teams agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) witnesses in the opening moments of “Sicario.” She loses good agents but not her resolve, so when Matt Grovera (James Brolin), allegedly a Department of Defense adviser searching for the men responsible, offers Macer a place on his team, she accepts.
From the moment Macer boards a private jet with Grovera to travel to El Paso, Texas, it’s clear he’s keeping her in the dark regarding the true nature of the mission, and his reason for having her on it. For starters, she learns they’re actually going to Juárez, Mexico to extradite a prisoner. Then there’s the third passenger, Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro). Something about him seems off from the start.
Director Denis Villeneuve and writer Taylor Sheridan anchor the film to Macer, so viewers are kept in the dark right along with her. This makes for a ferociously engaging viewing experience as Villeneuve and Sheridan gradually peel back the thick layers of their story.
“Sicario” is not just about its destination; it’s also about the journey. For example, Villeneuve regularly doles out shots of adrenaline in the form of tense set pieces. In an early scene, Grovera’s team becomes backed up in traffic as they try to transfer an informant into the U.S. Slowly, they become aware they’re surrounded by armed cartel thugs, and they have nowhere to go. Villeneuve takes his time with the scene, slowly turning up the flame until its at full burn, then unleashes a resolution that’s quick and decisive.
Even in those moments one might think of as belonging in an action blockbuster rather than a meditative thriller about the nature of the drug war, there’s meat on which viewers can chew. Macer barely understands why she’s on the mission to grab the informant, but her uncertainty is quickly replaced by shock regarding the illegal nature of the operation. What the hell are we doing? she asks. No one provides her with an immediate answer.
I’m glad they didn’t. The eventual revelation of what’s happening does not disappoint, and the final scenes of the film still resonate with me three days after seeing the movie, like the sound of an explosion that’s fading but never dies away.
I must also mention the performances of Blunt and Del Toro. As both the narrative and the emotional core of the film, Blunt has the heaviest load to carry – and she does so with remarkable strength and intensity. Conversely, Del Toro must spend most of the movie keeping viewers guessing, yet he creates one of the most memorable characters seen in a movie this year. If “Sicario” were nothing more than a showcase for its actors, their performances alone would make it worth seeing.
But “Sicario” is more than that. It’s an intelligently written and brilliantly directed film that explores one of the many dark corners of this world, and leaves viewers wondering what, if anything, can be done. What the hell are we doing? I asked as the film’s disquieting final shot burned itself into my memory. As if in answer, the screen faded to black.
Four stars out of four. Rated R for strong violence, grisly images, and language.
David Laprad is the assistant editor of the Hamilton County Herald and an award-winning columnist and photographer. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.