In recent years, Denis Villeneuve (2014's "Enemy
" and 2013's "Prisoners
") has distinguished himself as one of modern cinema's most vital filmmakers. No singular feature of his is like the others, and yet they collectively form a unified, visionary, ever-growing body of work as electrifying as it is momentous. "Sicario" is not merely a transfixing thriller, but a pivotal one, immersing the viewer so entirely into its stark web of underground drug-trading and lawfully muddied federal maneuvering that one forgets a movie is being watched at all. Running 121 minutes but feeling like the wink of an eye, the film epitomizes what happens when every last creative and technical element is operating together at the highest level possible.
When an FBI SWAT team converges on a suburban Arizona home suspected in connection to the Mexican-run Sonora cartel, they find much more than they bargained for: lines of plastic-wrapped corpses buried in the drywall and a detonating explosive device that claims the lives of two officers. Field agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), who made the ghastly walls-of-horror discovery, is full of by-the-book ideals, driven by a desire for justice. Enlisted by defense department contractor Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) to join his inter-agency task force, Kate is given scant details about their mission until she is being transported beyond their expected El Paso destination and across the border into the crime-riddled Juárez, Mexico. With the enigmatic Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) leading the charge, they set a plan into motion to smoke out cartel mastermind Manuel Díaz (Bernardo P. Saracino) by kidnapping his brother from prison. As Kate begins to question her role in the increasingly perilous operation, her trust unravels toward the true motives and identities of the authoritative men surrounding her.
"Sicario" (Spanish for "hitman") is a searing portrait of an unwinnable war against violence and drugs, as seen from the perspective of a skilled but sheltered FBI agent who will soon be readily aware of the corruption permeating both sides of the fight. Taylor Sheridan's debut screenplay casts a taut, thematically abundant shadow over its characters and the unsparing chain of brutality knocking forcefully at their doors. Denis Villeneuve's blistering directorial command, awash in uncompromised portent and the usurping presence of jeopardy, is an audiovisual experience to behold. Backed by Roger Deakins' (2012's "Skyfall
") towering cinematography and composer Jóhann Jóhannsson's (2014's "The Theory of Everything
") bestial, droning musical cacophony, each image and sound carries with it a clinching sense of foreboding. From the eerie close-ups of the sheathed bodies in the walls, one of them suggestively topped by what may or may not be a jackal's head, to the stomach-churning visions of everyday life being lived as mutilated human remains hang from overpasses and blazing destruction dots Juárez's forlornly beautiful evening sky, the provocative sights within are the kind that endure in one's consciousness. That the camera follows closely alongside Kate and, in a later section, Alejandro only serves to cast the viewer as a direct participant in the story, their harrowing experiences becoming our own.
The aesthetic urgency of the picture is matched by the unending tension Villeneuve orchestrates, his tale opening at an already heightened clip and continuing to raise the stakes throughout. The soaring aerials, capturing what resembles an alien planet as underscored by repetitive baritone air raids, are gateway to an arid landscape swarming with dirty secrets impossible to be understood. A deadly showdown amongst halted cars at the U.S.-Mexico border crossing is breathlessly suspenseful and joltingly savage, while a climactic journey into a secret cavernous tunnel system suspected of illegally transporting drugs and illegal immigrants emanates bravura unease. Trusting that quiet stillness can be every bit as riveting as his bursts of action, Villeneuve concocts a narrative that favors both; an unshakable late scene set around a family's outdoor dinner table is stomach-dropping in what happens, and how, and why.
Emily Blunt's (2014's "Into the Woods
") talents have never been in doubt, but where she emotionally takes her protagonist of Kate Macer significantly raises the bar on what she is capable. This is a revelatory performance, demanding of her physically, yes, but all the more transcendent for the raw dramatic places she goes. Blunt's petite size is a non-issue; she gives the role a tenacious grit that is never less than believable. Her struggle to retain her moral compass even as she cannot believe what she has gotten herself into is what makes this character so indelibly realized. Benicio Del Toro (2014's "Inherent Vice
") is tremendous as the evasive Alejandro, the anger and grief he feels over a tragedy from his past fueled by a steady, unapologetic ruthlessness. When Kate presses Matt on who Alejandro is and he responds that he is a former prosecutor now working as a Department of Defense adviser, she is smart enough to know this is far from the truth. Cornered from all sides by people playing partsthis includes the seductive, smooth-talking Texas police officer (Jon Bernthal) she meets while blowing off steam at a local barKate is correct in her suspicions that there are few people to trust.
The devastating trickle-down effect of violent crimes is at the mournful heart of "Sicario," each loss of life impacting incalculable numbers of indirect victims. Through her ordeal, Kate fiercely holds onto her principles, keeping faith that abiding by the laws and protocol she has been trained to follow will see her through. As she comes to learn with shell-shocked resignation, this is not at all the case. Ultimately, she might not be cut out for the harsh reality of her line of workthat for every unsavory person she locks up or takes down, there is someone else waiting to take his or her place. "This is a land of wolves now," Alejandro bluntly tells Kate, his words stinging with disheartening finality. "Sicario" is mesmerizing, a subjectively grim but necessary stunner saturated in apprehension. The final image of a lethal encroaching threat slicing through a vision of innocence is unforgettable. It's just another average day in a place where hopelessness and despair reside.