Rated R for strong violence, grisly images, and language
Score: 4 out of 5
Sicario is the latest from Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve (okay, Canada, why are all of your most successful filmmakers so dark and messed-up? Whatever happened to the stereotype that you were all nice and polite?), and much like his previous film Prisoners back in 2013, it's a movie that exists to test your faith in humanity. It is a pitch-black crime thriller about the Mexican drug war that showcases, in no uncertain terms, how every side in the conflict, from American and Mexican law enforcement to the cartels themselves, is amoral at best and actively benefiting at worst. It's a movie where the bad guys win, and to be honest, the good guys never really stood a chance -- not against the institutional corruption and broken policies that support the violence in Mexico. And to be even more brutally honest, save for Emily Blunt's idealistic FBI agent who slowly gets beaten down over the course of the film, it's not clear if there were any good guys to begin with. It's like The Wire on the border, a dark and scathing deconstruction of the (mostly American) mythology of Mexico's brutal war against out-of-control drug cartels, and while a number of points and subplots felt extraneous and seemed to drag on the main story, they still didn't stop this from being a very solid, tension-filled, and engaging film.
The film starts with Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), an FBI agent who, while taking part in a raid on suspected human traffickers in suburban Phoenix, discovers dozens of dead bodies -- along with an explosive device that kills two of her fellow officers. Seeking revenge against Manuel Diaz, the cartel boss believed to be responsible, and hoping to stop the violence in Mexico from spilling further over the border, Kate agrees to take part in a CIA-led operation to extract of one of Diaz's lieutenants in order to find out the location of his boss. Joining her is Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), a ruthless former prosecutor in Mexico who became a freelance contractor/hitman (the titular sicario) against the cartels after they murdered his family in an attempt to silence him -- but he and the people who hired him have a very different motivation for wanting to take down Diaz, motivations that, as are eventually revealed, run counter to everything that Kate believes in.
This is not some action movie about FBI agents and Mexican federales battling the cartels. There are only two or three big shootouts, and the actual gunplay in them is treated as an afterthought compared to Kate's observations of the harsh realities of the Mexican drug war. She -- and the viewer -- see dangerous flouting of procedure that puts civilian bystanders at risk of getting shot in the crossfire, mutilated bodies strung up by the cartels as a warning to anybody who would oppose them or go to the authorities, police forces in both Juarez and Phoenix that have been infiltrated by the cartels and are complicit in covering up their crimes, and an American law enforcement apparatus that only sees the cartels as a threat insofar as they're fighting each other and producing violence on the border. There are many in the US, including Kate's new CIA supervisor Matt Graber (Josh Brolin), who would love to go back to the days of Pablo Escobar, back when one organization controlled the Latin American drug trade and wasn't causing dangerous unrest from the border to the Andes. The violence in Mexico may be Mexico's problem, one that's produced a great number of legitimate monsters down there, but it's one that we're complicit in, whether we're snorting coke, turning a blind eye to everything south of the Rio Grande until it spills over, letting corruption run rampant, or outright cutting deals with drug traffickers. Not every angle of the Mexican drug war and America's involvement in it is shown in detail, but the portrait it paints of all parties is still scathing enough for Kate, who starts the film as an idealistic, naive agent who thinks she can stop the violence, to end it as an utter mess of a person.
And while I'm talking about Kate, let me say that this is an utter standout performance for Emily Blunt, who displays a great mix of hard-ass cop attitude and vulnerability as she's exposed first-hand to all the mayhem and awfulness of the drug war. Those of us who saw Edge of Tomorrow last year (both of us, it seems, going by its sad box-office receipts) know how well she can play this sort of character, but it's still great to watch. Likewise for Benicio del Toro as Alejandro, the "bad cop" to Blunt's by-the-book agent, an old cop movie archetype that gets pressed to its breaking point as we see just how many rules and standards of human decency he's willing to flout in order to make a difference -- and whether the difference he's trying to make is one worth rooting for at all. Their co-stars are uniformly superb, from Josh Brolin as the CIA/Department of Defense agent leading the charge to Daniel Kaluuya as Kate's partner Reggie who tries to keep her on the straight and narrow as everything goes to hell around her.
On the visual and technical side, director Denis Villeneuve had me on the edge of my seat. He makes the American southwest and the Mexican border look like a stark, forbidding place, whether it's in the empty desert, the American suburbs, or the Mexican ghettos. His action scenes, as noted above, are characterized less by bombast and more by a slow, paranoid build to some manner of horror, like bodies hidden in the wall or an uneasy guessing game of which car in the traffic jam around you is containing cartel goons out to kill you. The bursts of violence that inevitably cap them off are short, but brutal, leading later such scenes to have you constantly looking over your shoulder. Villeneuve's solid grip loses traction, though, when it comes to handling this film's subplots, most notably one involving a corrupt Mexican cop and his wife and son that ultimately goes nowhere except to give a backstory to some random guy. While I liked the intent of it, showing the events of the film from the perspective of a man trying to make ends meet and protect his family against the violence around him, the story never really felt like it got the resolution it deserved given how much was devoted to it. It's minor deviations like this and others that ultimately make the film feel just a little bloated, cutting into the otherwise great tension and leaving it with a few scenes that tend to drag. I would've found a way to better integrate these stories into the main plot, having these characters interact more with the protagonists instead of serving as deviations.
The Bottom Line:
Sicario is a fairly tough watch, and it's not quite as good as Prisoners was, but it's still a great follow-up for a promising filmmaker. If you like your crime dramas dark, disquieting, and morally grey (at best), then you'll definitely be down for this.