It’s kind of amazing to compare the two most intricate and insightful films about the drug war of the last fifteen years, Steven Soderbergh’s “Traffic” and Denis Villeneuve’s “Sicario”. Soderbergh’s film still had that slight glimmer of hope that maybe, somehow, the “War on Drugs” wasn’t the complete debacle it turned out to be. There’s no such glimmer of hope in “Sicario”, a film that says emphatically, “THE WAR IS OVER” even though it continues to be fought on the bloody streets by those with darkness in their souls. There are no good guys or bad guys in this fight, there’s nothing but grey, and wading into the murk is what Villeneuve does better than any director working today.
Already having explored the heart of darkness with “Prisoners” and “Enemy”, now Villeneuve uses the drug war as his battlefield, only not the one our government would have you know about. Working from an intense, go-for-broke screenplay by Taylor Sheridan, the film is both an action piece and a complicated moral tale with both sides given equal due. Roger Deakins’ spotless cinematography grips you from the opening moment as a drug hideout is busted down by an armored vehicle. Streaming into the home are a team of FBI agents led by Kate Mercer (Emily Blunt), and after surviving a harrowing close-quarters gunfight something horrific is uncovered. Her discovery gets a ton of attention, along with her past accomplishments for the Bureau, and she’s recruited by Matt Graver (Josh Brolin, plastered with a shit-eating grin the whole time) for a special operation, an off-the-books mission for the good ol’ U.S. government to take down a Mexican drug cartel.
From the moment the idealistic Kate crosses the border into Mexico, during an anxiety-inducing journey through the run-down Mexican streets littered with hanging corpses and corrupt cops, she’s in a world she never knew existed. It’s a world where people like Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro, who was also in Traffic) are allowed to operate with vicious impunity. Described as Matt’s “Bird Dog”, Alejandro is a lethal killer working against the cartels for reasons that seem very personal.
The real war being fought here is one of ideology, with Kate’s naiveté crashing against the “ends justify the means” attitude of her testosterone-jacked colleagues. Without the years of ugly experience coloring her world view, Kate, still believes in playing it by the book. She still sees people as fundamentally good, even though all of the evidence around her screams the contrary. By putting her as the focal point, the story is essentially making Kate our surrogate into this madness, which makes us worry that she’s far out of her depth. It’s a strong role for Blunt and one that continues her turn into a believable star of such genre movies. While not quite the nuts and bolts hero she was in “Edge of Tomorrow”, Blunt is at the center of nearly every major set piece and is terrific in all of them. And when things quiet down she sells Kate’s growing fear at this ugly world of black-hearted men she’s stumbled into.
Eventually the film becomes something different from how it started, and the focus shifts more to Alejandro and part to play in this sordid mess. We lose a little bit of our emotional connection to the story as Kate moves to the background, but Alejandro is so complex that it remains compelling. His part to play is more conventionally revenge-motivated, but ends on a satisfyingly shocking note. It also helps to have Del Toro in such an enigmatic role. If he was the hopeful heart of “Traffic” now he’s the vicious attack dog, and frankly he’s never been more commanding even with little dialogue. Brolin has the most fun as the flip flop-wearing Matt, while there are other strong supporting turns from Jon Bernthal and Daniel Kaluuya.
Aided by Deakins’ searing imagery, “Sicario” is another masterful effort from Villeneuve and one of the must-see movies of the year.