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In a quiet desert town in Arizona, an FBI Special Weapons and Tactics team raids a drug house nestled within a pleasant community, and after a short gun fight, either subdue or kill the heavily armed cartel gang inside. Led by Agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), who survives a near miss with a shotgun blast, they soon make a discovery in the home that none expected. Wrapped in plastic and stored within the walls of the house are dozens of decaying corpses, and in the shed out back, a more devastating find causes an explosion and the death of two agents. Despite the loss, Macer is brought before her boss (Victor Garber) who is sitting with a Department of Defense advisor named Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and recommends her for a position in an elite squad who are working to take down the big kingpins, including the man responsible for the house in Arizona, Manual Diaz (Bernardo P. Saracino).
She volunteers and is quickly flown to Mexico and on the plane she meets Matt’s partner Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), a reserved and mysterious man, who offers little in the way of conversation. When she meets the remainder of the crew, she joins them in a massive undertaking in Juarez to transport a prisoner back to the United States. Macer sits in the back of a SUV in silence as the operation goes smoothly until at the border where a traffic jam brings the caravan to a stop. Seated beside her, Alejandro spots some suspicious vehicles and radio chatter confirms weapons in nearby cars. What happens next is shocking as Kate learns a hard lesson about how the real war on drugs is being fought.
Like any good thriller, it is expectation rather than action that really marks a moment and Sicario makes good use of expectation throughout. The above scene is eerily reminiscent of a convoy of SUV’s in Phillip Noyce‘s Clear and Present Danger traveling in Columbia, the expectation of violence propelling that moment as well. Sicario, however, is a much more realistic film, delving deep into the nature of violence and the cycle of escalation between all sides in a conflict that has no end. The sheer sense of anxiety in this scene sets the tone for the remainder and is reason enough to praise the film. The fact that it features Blunt throughout who speaks only when it’s over is also testament to just how confident and committed the filmmakers are to their vision.
The film’s main course of contention lies in the idealistic Kate, who is a master tactician and respected leader but also a straight shooter who is devastated by what she sees as atrocities and abuse of power and lack concern for civilian lives by the men she has become involved with. This translates to a lot more time in contemplative disagreements and long pensive reflection by Macer. It also means painting both Graver and Alejandro as a pair of fratboy types who have seen and done it all so often it is a kind of game. Neither of these observations are criticisms but rather the broad but necessary strokes the film takes in revealing the two sides the ‘good guys’ have become. All the leads are convincing and well cast, with Del Toro especially good as a man haunted by the work. He has a menace about him that is palpable and brings to life a complex character shrouded in a frightful darkness that weighs on his every breath. He’s a marvel to watch and reminds us why he is truly one of the greats. Brolin too is sharp, the masochistic of the pair who revels in the actions of his partner.
Blunt is the real draw though. Already establishing herself as a true action star in the well-received Edge of Tomorrow, she carries the film here, with an emotional and challenging performance that, like Harrison Ford in the aforementioned Clear and Present Danger, is incorruptible. She brings a wide-eyed believability to the role that really helps the audience empathize with her situation, especially in a mesmerizing moment in an underground tunnel that leads her to a conversation she is not meant to witness and a decision that will come to define her. I like too, how she is never sexualized, never treated like a woman but rather a soldier in the fight, her skills being the asset she is recruited for and nothing more. That’s not to say she isn’t feminine, and not without vulnerability. There’s a wonderfully touching moment of lust that comes from a need to feel something alive and needful. That it turns into something else entirely is terrifying for a number of escalating reasons and leads to a powerfully human moment from a woman frayed to an end, confessing a want to a man she isn’t even sure she can trust.
The last great character in the film is the astounding cinematography, once again by Roger Deakins. From the opening moments at a border crossing where car windows dictate the flow of action to a night raid in the desert with long shots from hovering drones to night vision POV, Deakins and director Denis Villeneuve are patient in letting tension build, scaffolding shots toward powerful conclusions. A scene on a stretch of night road where two cars meet is a claustrophobic masterpiece of light and shadow, close-ups and things unseen.
Sicario (which in Spanish means Hitman), despite the trailer and the genre for which it seems entrenched, is not an action film. It is deliberately slow and does not once fall for the usual trappings. There are moments of action, but every bullet fired, which are not many, feels purposeful. There is also a shift in tone in the middle act where the filmmakers seems to lose confidence in their style and pump up the soundtrack where none is needed, which worked so well in the beginning, but thankfully return to form in the final stirring act that comes together precisely as it should. This is not a story of timeless heroes and big stunts but of burdens, and vengeance and spiraling moral apathy. This is a world of suffering that is led by greed and power and thrives on violence and corruption. Kate Macer is the untainted shiny new cog that when put in the machine is swallowed up and crushed. It’s a journey of remarkable power. This is one of the year’s best films.