Posted by Joel Copling on September 24, 2015

"Sicario" is fascinating in its approach to the drug war (or the "War on Drugs" or however one chooses to refer to it, as this film successfully blurs the line usually separating the two movements) as a phantom looming over the dark heart of what really establishes the core of this conflict. That core is evil, pure and simple. Nobody wins in this fight, and this is epitomized in a shootout that occurs on the border highway in between Arizona and Mexico. The shootout sequence, as captured by director Denis Villeneuve and cinematographer Roger Deakins in harsh heat and sunlight, is curt, blunt, and brutal, the effects of the bullet to the human body neither glossed over nor glorified. The kicker of the sequence, though, is that it accomplishes next to nothing apart from allowing our government-official protagonists another half-step in their goal to get at the heart of a cartel.

That the half-step is actually one of the film's more important goals should illuminate how hopeless this fight is when we realize how small the action is in the big picture. It is the capture of Manuel Diaz (Bernardo P. Saracino) by our principal heroine, F.B.I. agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), and a team of other officials from various agencies (played by the likes of Josh Brolin, Daniel Kaluuya, Jeffrey Donovan, and Victor Garber). The enigmatic lone wolf here, then, is Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), who works for whoever is willing to pay him and has a tragic secret in his past that connects itself to this mission on which he has found himself attached by the higher-ups.

The particulars of the narrative are unimportant within the deeper context of what is at work in Taylor Sheridan's screenplay, but the dialogue does indeed consist of a lot of names, places, and orders both official and tactical. Action sequences are as abrupt as the aforementioned highway showdown, such as the opening scene (in which a far more horrifying discovery than drugs is discovered within a suburban house's walls and basement) and one set around a dinner table (which showcases the film's loving reliance on silence over bombast). Deakins is particularly on fire here in possibly the director of photography's best work since switching to digital near the beginning of the decade, Johann Johannsson's score is more like a droning, unearthly complement to the whirring of helicopter blades and the loud patter of bullets against wood and stone, and Joe Walker's editing is precision personified in a movie built on the stuff.

The actors bring a lot credence to this material, too, with Blunt leading the way in a hardened performance a woman (divorced in the past and, with one word, making us guess the reason why this might be--until we remember her profession and its baggage) in the midst of a world one ancillary character implies heavily does not welcome any feminine influence. The actress, an English one sporting an American accent note-perfect in inflection, is particularly effective in scenes where she appraises her circumstances and options. Del Toro is the highlight of a strong supporting cast as a man haunted by familial tragedy that has honed his sense of dead-eyed justice (known to laymen as "revenge").

The material might feel familiar (One should expect third-act surprises in this kind of thing by now, and the film ultimately says nothing about the drug world that the perceptive do not already know), but that all-encompassing reliance on silence is not easily dismissed. "This is a land of wolves now," intones one character who by then exists in a moral black hole. Good deeds are hard to identify, good people even harder, and even the modifier "good" is one more relative to nature than ever. There are no sides; there are only hills on which to die (both metaphorically and, in increasingly violent fashion, literally). "Sicario" resides somewhere near the basin of human nature, documenting as it goes, and the wolves are nature's selected.

Film Information

Emily Blunt (Kate Macer), Benicio Del Toro (Alejandro), Josh Brolin (Matt), Daniel Kaluuya (Reggie), Jeffrey Donovan (Steve Forsing), Victor Garber (Jennings), Bernardo P. Saracino (Manuel Diaz), Raoul Trujillo (Rafael), Maximiliano Hernandez (Silvio), Jon Bernthal (Ted).

Directed by Denis Villeneuve and written by Taylor Sheridan.

Rated R (violence, grisly images, language).

121 minutes.

Released in select cities on September 18, 2015.