Thundering bass and fierce stares introduce an overlong but tensely-paced thriller, brimming with hard-hitting subject matter and pitch-black characters. A cold-open drug bust on a wretched house in the desert sets the stage for tragedy and an escalating death toll as Emily Blunt leads a notable cast in a picture of naïve law enforcement idealism subjected to the brutality of cartel warfare. In this strikingly realistic world of drug kingpins, unfeeling hitmen, and inhuman politics, there are no winners – only survivors.
When FBI field agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) uncovers 42 dead bodies at a house in Arizona during a kidnap response mission, she quickly realizes she’s in over her head. Offered a spot in a joint agency taskforce charged with finding the elusive head of the Sonoran Cartel, Kate accepts, hoping she can aid in the apprehension of the man responsible for the mass killings. Working under cynical Department of Defense liaison Matt (Josh Brolin) and mysterious advisor Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), Kate participates in increasingly riskier operations that inch her closer to locating their target – and further away from the boundaries of the law.
As supporting players refuse to shine light on true motives and objectives, a fish-out-of-water character study emerges for the noble-minded FBI operative plunged into an eye-opening mission of abusers and victims – belonging to both sides of the law in equal measure. When a caravan of armored SUVs enter Juarez, reminiscent of a scene in “Zero Dark Thirty” when stealth helicopters descend upon the al-Qaeda compound, there’s nothing more ominous than a pan across the “Welcome to Mexico” highway sign. It’s an exhilarating moment of cynicism, followed by a reentry onto U.S. turf that is hindered by a machinegun showdown on a crowded street. This is by far the most riveting moment in the film, featuring careful choreography and a perfect blend of anticipation and excitement. Unfortunately, it happens early and simply can’t be bested by any other sequence later on (including the climax).
“I want to follow some semblance of procedure!” The sense of spontaneity crafted by a conglomeration of interagency soldiers and advisors who follow no definable rules and report to completely unknown entities is “Sicario’s” strongest angle. It makes a few efforts to justify questionable tactics or criminal endeavors for the sake of the greater good, but the overwhelming gray-area ethics utilized in fighting the cartels leaves few true protagonists and a feeling of grave authenticity.
However, the negative effect this has resides primarily in the shifting of tones and attention. At times, the movie alternates between gung-ho adventure, nail-biting suspense, a cautionary tale of innocents wrapped up in unavoidable violence, and a revealing exposé of governmental corruptions – all regularly at odds with a consistent vision. Concurrently, the focus on Blunt’s starry-eyed soldier realizing her place in the grittily realistic arena of the drug trade gives way to Del Toro’s gun-blazing action hero routine – before circling back to the sincerer motif of loss and devastation in the family unit (or in a psychological equilibrium for the troopers who think they can overcome human chaos in a place where survival of the fittest is the only order). As seen in director Denis Villeneuve’s other works (particularly in “Prisoners”), it’s as if he’s always trying to make more than one film at the same time.