Denis Villeneuve once again explores moral quandaries and ethics with “Sicario” (Mexican term meaning “hitman”), a brutally violent and disturbing film about curtailing or facilitating the influx of drug empire south of the Mexican border by the CIA. Josh Brolin plays the smart-mouthed Matt, a CIA man in too deep with mysterious operative Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), a man with a history that raises suspicions, particularly with anti-kidnapping FBI agent Kate (Emily Blunt) making her maiden voyage on a drug raid task force in Mexico.
Kate is the lone woman in a male testosterone killing environment and soon the odd one out as she becomes more an appendage than a participant in several operations. The deeper she gets the harder it is for her to untangle. She is presented an escape hatch but can’t escape. Why does she stay? That question goes unanswered but there’s an element of human curiosity that compels her to see things through, especially after an early mishap that has severe consequences.
Mexican men are shot to bits if they blink or merely display a weapon. Probable cause? That’s for a group of dead white guys called the Founding Fathers. When rogue is rogue, who cares about law? “This is a place for wolves,” one character says ominously. It’s a haunting line, one that rings deep in its own truth as well as in the tone of its delivery. The final scene suggests business as usual, a hardening of a hard line normalized by its own existence and by those who survive the slaughter.
“Sicario” is a longer-than-necessary exercise, distended, often barren in its atmosphere and pacing, which only accentuates its feeling of dread and discomfort, a state further enhanced by Johann Johannsson’s brooding music score. Kate, a naive yet experienced FBI agent, makes ill-advised choices, and you feel that she’s much smarter than the film makes her out to be. She’s taken aback when she’s asked a series of personal questions, tested by an all-male cadre who seeks to put a lamb in to shadow a group of foxes.
In “Sicario” you see bad news coming from a mile away, but Mr. Villeneuve’s strength is that he makes you analyze and contemplate that bad news long before, during and long after it arrives. He gets you to entertain it, meditate in it and explore it. That exercise is sometimes wasted here, as the events and screenplay by Taylor Sheridan don’t have the heft or the cohesion to survive a two-plus hour drama.
Mr. Villeneuve’s mastery is in slow-burn, psychological and visceral drama — the kind that often jars and scars us and the characters we watch. In “Prisoners” it was penetrative. In “Enemy” it was eerie and off-kilter. Here it’s tragic and often intense. There’s a ruthless dispatch about the film’s most violent episodes that are especially disturbing, although the most distressing violence is what we don’t see onscreen in one frightening and devastating scene. The relevant scene must have presented the director with an ethical choice of his own as a filmmaker: does he display the violence as it happens after showing so many onscreen killings up to that point, or is it copout central if he employs restraint to make a larger point?
I wish I could highly recommend “Sicario”, but its power is blunted by relatively sterile performances, notably (pardon the pun) Ms. Blunt’s, and a routine one from Mr. Brolin, whose Matt is too much a cocky cardboard piece on this film’s violent chessboard of move and countermove. Mr. Del Toro however, is throughly arresting and unnerving. He percolates superbly at times, while maintaining the most mellow demeanor in a film of such carnage.
That said, “Sicario” is aggressively psychological — if that makes sense — such is the level of violence that you are forced to think about what the end will look like for all of those tangled in ethical morasses. There’s a remoteness to the fates of some characters, satellites to a drug war that is a true facade. This war isn’t about winning and losing. It’s about control and protection, not ending the scourge of drugs. Yet one character lectures about getting 20% of a population to stop snorting drugs. It’s a line full of deceit and self-delusion. It isn’t the population that’s at fault — it’s the corrupt elements of law enforcement who stand to make a monetary killing to preserve the trade, a trade they will do anything — absolutely anything — to uphold. It’s a bloody hole that has no bottom and no escape, unless that escape is self-inflicted or at the hands of an unholy actor.
The truth is that in “Sicario” no one has the answers, even those who are sure they do. The trick or challenge is leaving the audience to decide if among all the unclean hands there are a pair of hands who have done any semblance of the right thing. Mr. Villeneuve just about succeeds, but I’m not sure the effort was merited by a film that meanders and lingers longer than it should.
Also with: Daniel Kaluuya, Victor Garber, Bernardo P. Saracino, Hank Rogerson, Jon Bernthal, Maximiliano Hernandez, Raoul Trujillo, Julio Cedillo, Jeffrey Donovan.
“Sicario” is rated R by the Motion Picture Association Of America for strong violence, grisly images, and language. The film’s running time is two hours and one minute. The film is in English and occasional Spanish language with English subtitles.
Omar P.L. Moore is the editor of The Popcorn Reel movie review website. He can be reached on Twitter @popcornreel, on YouTube at youtube.com/popcornreel or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. He is a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle.