Sicario is far from being just another crime film. The movie delivers thrills with devastating precision, but it’s not satisfied with just being entertaining. It’s thought-provoking and evocative to an extent I haven’t seen from a film of this nature in quite awhile. Two straight hours of dread-filled anxiety later, I can safely say Sicario is one of the year’s very best.
Set along the border between the U.S. and Mexico, the film’s primary protagonist is Kate (played by Emily Blunt), an idealistic FBI agent who volunteers for a cartel task force being led by a gung-ho Department of Defense adviser (Josh Brolin) and his mysterious partner Alejandro (Benicio del Toro). The entire cast does incredible work here, but Blunt and del Toro deserve praise in particular.
The film is less concerned about the drug war itself than it is the moral implications of how we combat said “war.” Blunt’s character serves as a sort of audience surrogate, in that her perspective and goals are deeply rooted in her morals, which are sound. The real conflict comes from how the events in the film challenge her outlook, because as the story unfolds we learn that everything isn’t as black and white as she may think. She’s a certified badass, but there are also moments of vulnerability in her performance that really solidify her as the anchor throughout.
Alejandro, on the other hand, is much more mysterious, as his intentions and allegiances don’t become clear until the final act. Nobody could play this part like del Toro. His portrayal is realistic and by far the most compelling in the film. There’s a darkness behind his eyes and in his lined face that lends itself perfectly to this role. Much of the nuance and progression in the story comes from his character, delivering yet another fantastic performance from an underrated actor.
As he has demonstrated in his other work, director Denis Villenueve (Prisoners and Enemy) is maybe the best filmmaker working today when it comes to tension and edge-of-your-seat moments. Sicario is no exception. Every set piece in the film is executed perfectly, with some truly beautiful and effective camerawork from the great Roger Deakins, who Villenueve also worked with on Prisoners. But for me, the score by Jóhann Jóhannsson is what really elevates the action from intriguing to enrapturing. It’s nothing groundbreaking, but the music is unsettling and dissonant in such a way that it enhances the tension on screen as opposed to distracting from it.
Affecting real change requires compromise, and Sicario applies this logic to the drug war. There are some truly gruesome moments found within, and the moral gray area is consistent throughout. There are no good guys or bad guys in this story. It’s not “us” vs. “them.” This isn’t the first movie to wrestle with these themes, but it’s so successful because it shows restraint when it should, points the camera toward the horror when it has to, and does so unflinchingly. It’s dark, entertaining, and important must-see cinema.