The pulse of Sicario will quicken yours. We should expect as much knowing the work of director Denis Villeneuve (Enemy, Prisoners) who's quickly becoming the most reliable suspense filmmaker today. Sicario is a film of increasing danger. It's like the trash compactor scene in Star Wars strung out for 121 minutes. Villeneuve takes us inside the cartel war in Mexico to the middle of the compactor, where the walls, quite literally, start closing in.
Timeliness is next to godliness in filmmaking and Sicario is a hurry up film. The heroes want to get things done, and scenes move fast. With border politics constantly in American news cycles and cartel violence covering front pages in Mexico, the drug war has only escalated since its 1970s inception. Villeneuve's film doesn't shy away from the hopelessness of winning the drug war. It embraces it. It needs it to explain the actions of the heroes.
Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is the film's hope. She's FBI, young, talented, and currently raiding stash houses in Arizona with her partner Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya) and SWAT. One house is full of dead bodies, over 40 of them packed into the drywall like insulation. What can the law do in the face of such evil?
That question has been asked many times in movie history and Sicario uses the same underdog dynamic. Kate is asked to "volunteer" for a government task force by a Department of Justice liaison, Matt (Josh Brolin) and, convinced her work is merely "sweeping up the mess," she accepts, although she has no idea what she's gotten herself into.
On the plane to "El Paso" which ends up in Mexico, Kate meets a quiet man named Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro). She probes him for answers but he tells her she's asking "how a clock works," and tells her to just "focus on what time it is." Confused, but dedicated to making a difference, Kate shuts up and goes along for the ride... for awhile.
The entrance into Mexico is worth salivating over. Roger Deakins' stunning cinematography is paired with a pounding score by Jóhann Jóhannsson that builds and explodes once we cross the border. The hellish red desert doubles as a gateway to the underworld. One shot, near the end, speaks volumes: The camera stops and watches the soldiers descending a hill at dusk. Two by two, their silhouettes merge with, then disappear into the darkness below—a chilling vision. Deakins' technical ability and Villeneuve's masterful eye makes Sicario an orchestra of suspense. Every shot feels thoughtful. The camera seems to know everything and nothing at the same time.
In Juárez, AKA "The Beast," Matt and Alejandro lead a team of special forces through the narrow city streets. They're evacuating a cartel underboss, as Kate learns on the fly, and taking him back to the States where the two team leaders interrogate him in hilarious and menacing fashion. Both Brolin and Del Toro are magnetic. Brolin wears a wry smile, constantly talking but saying nothing. Matt loves his work in the shadows and Brolin brings that joy to the character. His glee at seeing Alejandro torture people borders on sadistic, but you can't help but smile with him. And Del Toro, as he was in Traffic, is perfectly suited to his role. Alejandro is a quiet intimidator and a machine with a weapon. Del Toro makes you believe it all, in a performance the kids might call "fucking badass."
With information gleaned from their "cooperative" detainee, the task force heads out on a clandestine mission that should reap huge dividends. Kate's eyes finally open and she's faced with a daunting decision between two rights or two wrongs, depending on the viewpoint. Black and white doesn't exist in Sicario. This is a film of gray areas and writer Taylor Sheridan's script reveals nothing as the finale is, gloriously, always in question. Blunt, as Kate, does the same. She's no righteous hero. She's uninformed, but well familiar with the devil at hand. One of the film's many suspenseful strings is seeing how far she'll go against her own instinct. As she becomes embroiled deeper, her desire to know everything puts her life at risk. Blunt vacillates between enthralled and exasperated in another steely-eyed physical performance. Her final scene is as moving as anything you'll see onscreen this year.
Cartel films are nothing new. The Counselor explores the death sentence dealing with them imposes, as does End of Watch. While smaller films, like Sin Nombre and Heli, tell focused dramatic stories from inside Mexico. One of this year's best documentaries, Cartel Land, even takes us behind the curtain of The Knights Templar, one of the most dangerous cartels operating right now. What's most compelling about these gangs, cinematically, is the brutality of the violence. And Sicario is full of it. But what makes the film great is the overwhelming feeling of despair it instills. In an unwinnable war, it's the story of the people on the ground, trying to make a difference however they can and how that willingness can both fulfill and corrupt, and sometimes both.