Sicario is a great companion piece—and, to my mind, a superior film—to Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty. Both involve manhunts that see US forces hunting down their quarry on foreign soil, without involving the local authorities. This is murky ethical territory, the implications of which Zero Dark Thirty shrugs off, but Sicario, which deals with the drug trade along the US-Mexico border, doesn’t. The night-vision kill of Osama Bin Laden in Bigelow’s film is a tribute to the deadly efficiency of the US marines, a catharsis of sorts after a very tense film. Sicario is just as tense, but is less inclined to let audiences off the hook.
The film, by French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve (Incendies, Prisoners), opens with dead bodies and ends with deadened hopes. On a kidnapping raid in Chandler, Arizona, FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) and her team find dozens of corpses in the walls of a house. Then, as they’re sweeping the compound, an explosive device goes off, killing two agents. Later that evening, Kate’s superiors ask her if she’d like to join an inter-organization task force headed by the department of defence adviser Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) aimed at taking down the person responsible for her team-members’ deaths, cartel boss Manuel Diaz. She agrees, but right from the start it’s clear that this mission isn’t entirely what it seems.
After picking up Matt’s partner, Alejandro Gillick (Benicio Del Toro), and a team of ex-military men at El Paso, Texas, they head to Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. In a sequence that makes brilliant use of aerial camerawork, their convoy travels over the border, through the violence-strewn streets of Ciudad Juárez, where they abduct one of Diaz’s men, and then back over the border. At the checkpoint, there’s a skirmish and Alejandro, who till then had identified as a prosecutor, shows that he’s ice-cold in a gunfight. To Kate’s horror, no one seems to care in the least about civilian casualties.
Even before Diaz’s man looks at Alejandro and says, “Medellin”, Del Toro makes it clear his character is carrying a lot of baggage. What the exact nature of this baggage is, and how he fits into Matt’s plans, is something Sicario reveals slowly. Kate is the audience surrogate here: appalled at the violence and the sidestepping of international law, but unable to turn away. Eventually, she finds out why she—an agent with comparatively little experience and nothing approaching this level of combat training—is on the task force at all. By then, Matt’s larger strategy—which he helpfully boils down to “making some noise”—is well under way.
Villeneuve’s talent for building tension from scene to scene is already well known, and here he displays a rare command over the prolonged set piece. His partnership with Roger Deakins started on Prisoners, and the veteran cinematographer really gets to stretch out here and lend some of his magic to the Mexican landscape. Brolin, all forced blitheness, and Del Toro, mumbling and grimacing as only he can, are magnetic, but the film finds its emotional force in Blunt’s aghast features as she watches the mission become increasingly compromised, legally and morally. I could have done without the subplot involving a Mexican cop and his son, which feels like a token gesture, but that apart, Sicario is gut-wrenching and cynical in ways that Hollywood rarely is nowadays.
This review appeared in Mint.