This is not the usual laid back, lowbrow action movie. In Sicario, director and Quebec native Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Enemy) has created an unnerving look into the drug conflict along the border of the southern United States. In this story, neither the Mexican and American authorities, nor the drug cartels are playing by the book. At the end of this cinematic tour de force, moviegoers are left with their preconceived notions shattered.
The story begins when a hardened but idealistic FBI agent, Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) and her kidnap response team storm a compound near Phoenix, Arizona, which turns out to be a dumping ground for victims of the cartel rivalries. Marked by this traumatic experience, Kate decides to join a spontaneously arranged inter-agency task-force, led by a mysterious advisor named Matt, (Josh Brolin). After teaming up with Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) in El Paso, Texas, the group leads a prisoner extradition from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, sparking a string of violence that spirals out of control. As Kate stumbles deeper down the rabbit hole, her own role in the tale becomes more and more ambiguous. The plot culminates with an explosive climax in which all storylines converge for a surprising finish.
Sicario manages to paint a thrilling, thought-provoking picture of cartel violence in Mexico and the American Southwest. While Villeneuve can be criticized for lack of nuance when it comes to the portrayal of Mexican characters, overall the movie instills the sense that in this conflict, simplistic moral categories like 'good' and 'evil' do not apply.
Much of this effect is owed to the performance of Blunt, who skillfully portrays the mental disintegration of Macer. Blunt’s authentic, detailed, and tense breakdown causes the viewers to soon find themselves wondering about their own moral codex. Her performance is so powerful that the other characters tend to pale in comparison to her. Del Toro manages to evade that risk by instilling Alejandro with an air of mystery, grief and thinly-veiled rage that leaves the audience longing for more. Brolin, on the other hand, remains rather superficial in his role as hardcore, no-nonsense agent Matt. This is partially due to the plot, which does not, by design, provide much depth to this character.
The mood in Sicario—a growing feeling of suspense and uneasiness—is to a large extent set by the cinematography of Roger Deakins. Using impressive aerial shots of the desert, Deakins transports the feeling of loneliness and omnipresent danger. Murky close-ups of the characters make them more relatable to the audience. Combined with the powerful score by composer Johann Johannsson, which builds up tension masterfully, Sicario makes for an extraordinary cinema experience.
Villeneuve and his cast have created an impressive portrait of this deadly conflict. It will be hard for the average viewer to judge how close to reality this film actually is. Regardless, this movie will certainly provoke much thought about responsibility for the killing that continues every day in cities along the U.S.-Mexico Border.
Sicario is playing at Cinema Excentris (3536 St. Laurent Blvd) until Oct. 2.