I think we have all long since come to the conclusion that the war on drugs is, to put it mildly, an utter failure. Instead of ridding the world of illegal substances, this war has allowed the drug trade to exist in a way it was never intended to. Furthermore, many fighting this war have become just as bad as the drug czars they are pursuing, and this should not be seen as new news. And when you cross a drug cartel, they punish you in the most painful way possible and let the rest of the world know it in a horrifyingly unforgettable manner. In short, we will never get rid of illegal drugs this way.
There have been many movies that have chronicled the pointlessness and shocking brutality of the war on drugs and the unscrupulous politics behind it like Steven Soderbergh’s “Traffic,” “Kill the Messenger” and David Ayer’s “Sabotage” which I liked more than most people did. “Sicario” is the latest film you can add to that list, and it proves to be as riveting as it is nerve wracking as we follow an idealistic FBI agent as she descends into the hellish center of this war and learns a number of harsh truths never taught at Quantico.
“Sicario” hits the ground running with a very intense scene that fully sets up the chief perspective you will see the movie from. We meet FBI special agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) as she rides along with her fellow agents on a bust which involves them raiding a house where a kidnap victim may be. Things get even more heightened when the agents discover dozens of dead and decaying bodies hidden behind the walls, and this is only the beginning of what’s in store for the audience.
This bust leads Kate to be enlisted (voluntarily, of course) by an undefined government task force led by Matt (Josh Brolin) which is put together to aid the drug war that never seems to cease escalating at the U.S./Mexican border. But once there, Kate will find her idealistic nature put to the test as she discovers that this war has become more personal to some than she was led to believe.
It should be no surprise that “Sicario” is a seriously intense piece of filmmaking considering that it was directed by Denis Villeneuve who gave us the equally intense “Prisoners” a few years back. He succeeds in putting us right into Kate’s shoes as we follow her every step of the way as she enters a town that is as foreign to her as it is to us. We discover things at the same time she does like a couple of naked dead bodies hung from a nearby bridge, a chilling warning of what happens to those who interfere with the drug trade. We also share her sense of panic and terror when a character next to her says, “Keep an eye out for the state police. They’re not always the good guys.”
The movie also makes us share in Kate’s utter frustration as Matt and his troops keep the nature of their overall mission a secret to her and her partner Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya). But once she is sucked into this increasingly insane mission, she finds it impossible to tear herself away from it even as she questions its legality.
Villeneuve is a master at creating a slow burn intensity that keeps escalating for what seems like an eternity before the situation finally explodes. The picture he paints of the drug war is an exceptionally bleak one, and I imagine this movie won’t do much for the Mexican tourist trade. He is also aided tremendously by master cinematographer Roger Deakins who captures the bleakness of a town long since ravaged by the drug war in a way that is horrifying and unforgettable, and by composer Jóhann Jóhannsson whose film score lights the fuse to “Sicario’s” intense flame and keeps it burning to where you just can’t take it anymore.
Emily Blunt proved to the world just how bad ass she can be in “Edge of Tomorrow,” and she is clearly in her element here as an FBI agent who has yet to learn how the drug war is really fought. Seriously, this is one of the best performances you will see by an actress this year. Blunt fully inhabits her character to where you can never spot a faked emotion on her face. It’s a fearless performance that must have emotionally draining for her, and I love how she never has to strive for an Oscar moment. Blunt just is Kate Mercer, and you want to follow her into the depths of hell even if you know you won’t like what’s about to be unveiled.
Josh Brolin is perfectly cast as a government agent who clearly knows more than he lets on. We can see on his face that this is a character that has seen a lot of bad stuff go down and has long since become numbed to the effects of an endless drug war that shows no signs of stopping. Brolin doesn’t necessarily have one of those clean scrubbed faces as his is rough around the edges, and Hollywood doesn’t seem to value that kind of face enough. Some actors benefit from having history written all over them and Brolin is one of those actors as he makes you believe he has been to hell and back.
But make no mistake; the best performance in “Sicario” belongs to Benicio Del Toro who portrays Alejandro, a mysterious figure whose motives and intentions are eventually revealed towards the movie’s conclusion. Del Toro is great at hinting at the horrors his character has faced (this man looks to have some serious PTSD), and he makes Alejandro into a dangerously unpredictable character whose next move is always hard to guess. His role in this movie reminds us of what a brilliant actor he can be (not that we ever forgot), and he succeeds in increasing the already high tension level this movie already has.
“Sicario” does have some flaws. As intense as it is, it’s not quite “Hurt Locker” or “Zero Dark Thirty” intense. There are one or two scenes that don’t feel right as the acting and the writing are a bit off. As for the ending, I kind of hoped Villeneuve would have left things on a far more ambiguous note like he did in “Prisoners.” While the movie leaves us on a note of hope, is a hope that is tempered with the sound of gunfire off in the distance. It’s unnerving, but Villeneuve lets off a little too easy.
Regardless, “Sicario” is still a hard-edged thriller that grabs you right from the start and holds you in its grasp all the way to the end. Like any really good movie, it will shake you up and stay with you long after you have left the theater. Some movies are made to be watched. “Sicario” was made to be experienced. It’s not the kind of experience some audiences are pinning for, but those willing to travel down its dark path will find much to admire.