It doesn’t take long for the brutally intense tone of Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario to make itself known. Within minutes, bodies are bloodily gunned down and an array of decaying corpses decorate the screen. This film is about the violence and dirty-deals that the United States institutes to combat the modern Drug War. Guts, choke-holds and all.
Our entry-point into this realm is FBI agent Kate (Emily Blunt). She is drafted into a vague task force whose purpose seems to be causing mayhem, hoping to cause mistakes and eventually reveal the location of a major drug-cartel’s leader. Exactly what Kate’s part in this mission is remains in the shadows for the majority of the picture. Wary of the brazenness of her force’s leader (Josh Brolin), Kate nevertheless goes along in hopes of making a different; plus a little revenge for fallen comrades. Along for the job is Alejandro (Benicio del Toro), another strange puzzle piece. Highly skilled and intense, Alejandro clearly is a dangerous element of Kate’s trip into the darkness.
Sicario is bleak stuff. That isn’t to say it’s entirely humorless. With a script by Taylor Sheridan (“Sons of Anarchy”), Villeneuve’s picture is a spiral into the horrors of the Drug War, with all of the gallows humor and screwed up elements to go with it. Bodies hang from bridges, often with fewer limbs than they born with. Laws are broken for the benefit of some and not others. Firefights happen in very public settings. Having risen to some domestic prominence in recent years for Prisoners and the superb Enemy, Villeneuve stages these scenes bluntly. The score is rarely heard, the edits are direct and the tenor is alive in the moment.
A sequence early in the picture finds Kate, Alejandro and others trying to kidnap one of a cartel’s premiere guys. The precision of the camera movements are as finely tuned as the army of sleek, black vehicles that hold the combatants driving through the U.S.-Mexico border into Juarez. Slicing through the streets in unison, we hear orders and concerns. They check out a green car one street over. A mysterious guy on a roof. Things go according to plan until they don’t, and when that occurs it’s a taut, thrilling experience. One side sits, waiting for the other to engage and vice-versa, with the terms of combat coming with an elastic definition. All of this comes with the, as expected, stunning Roger Deakins cinematography.
The terror of it all is expertly displayed. Brolin’s character knows this, ignoring one awful thing after another, just so the endgame can be in play. Kate’s various acceptances and rejections of this are the crux of Sicario and she plays it well. If the character occasionally feels like a cypher and less a person, that is one of few complaints the film bares. The gloom really envelops the film when del Toro’s Alejandro comes increasingly into focus. Portrayed perfectly by del Toro with steel-eyed vigor, Alejandro is at times hero and villain; representing how useless both of those terms can truly be. They are but superlatives labelled by differing parties. The story is, knowingly, at a loss of where to go. There is that sense of accepting that violence begets violence, but hand-in-hand with the better there than here ethos. As one character puts it, they are there to “Shake the tree” and hope it will allow for something, anything positive to come out of that plotted recklessness.