“Sicario” is a conventionally unconventional drug wars thriller, a well-cast, breathlessly executed peek into the heart of a Trumpian nightmare of Mexican cartels which kill at will on either side of an embattled border.
This Denis Villeneuve (“Incendies,””Enemy”) film has a standard list of ingredients and component scenes. But it’s what he does with them that makes it exceptional. It’s the “Syriana” of drug war movies.
Emily Blunt is Kate Macer, the idealistic F.B.I. agent talked into volunteering for a dangerous, almost off-the-books operation to hunt down a cartel chief. Having just raided a booby-trapped house filled with the bodies of cartel victims, she’s a prime candidate.
“What’s our objective?” she asks Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), the man-in-charge, sketchily described as a “Department of Defense” adviser on the case.
“To dramatically over-react.”
But Kate is wary. Graver and his crew seem to have unlimited resources. They’re super-secretive. And then there’s the guy he describes as his “bird dog.” Alejandro. Benicio del Toro, in his best performance (least mumbled) in years, gives this guy a weary menace, hiding his eyes behind sunglasses. Kate looks for answers from him, the scope of what they’re doing.
“You’re asking me how a watch works,” Alejandro sighs. “For now, let’s just keep an eye on the time.”
Kate will be the viewers’ eyes in this trip, even though there’s much we see that she doesn’t. Like the Mexican cop (Maximiliano Hernández) we keep checking in with, a husband, provider and father to a soccer-mad tweenage son. His story will intersect with Kate’s, we figure.
Her journey down this rabbit-hole takes her into a covert world of torture, border crossings and un-Constitutional acts, large and small. The least believable ingredient in this Taylor Sheridan script is Kate’s lingering refusal to buy in. The hazing rituals (disrespected), the threats to her life if she isn’t all-in, the end goal, the impressive surgical precision of the operations and the groupthink of this operation should shake her loose from core beliefs.
Because we certainly do. From the moment Villeneuve stages the standard-issue bumper-to-bumper convoy of black Chevy Tahoes, escorting a prisoner across the U.S. border, he has us. That scene is so tense you will forget to breathe.
“Sicario” — Mexican slang for “hitman” — reveals its secrets slowly. There’s little wasted time and even the cliches — talky confrontations with the bad guys, “I need a drink” bar visits — are integral to the plot and make this deliberate, chilling and cautionary thriller all the more impressive.
Scariest of all, as Kate is shown tracer bullets and explosions dotting the skyline of an infamous cross-border city, is the message about what the cost of America’s lust for cocaine and heroin could truly be.
“Juarez is the future.”
Rating:R for strong violence, grisly images, and language
Cast: Emily Blunt, Benicio del Toro, Josh Brolin
Credits: Directed by Denis Villeneuve, script by Taylor Sheridan. A Lionsgate/Summit release.
Running time: 2:01