Before director Denis Villeneuve gets into his latest thriller, a grim title card informs us the word “Sicario” is a common term for a hit-man in Mexico. We have no idea of knowing whether this accurate, of course, although I like to think the title-card has the same authority as the one that prefaces Ronin. Both Ronin and Sicario are about hardened, violent men who ignore the typical rules of engagement and diplomacy. While Ronin is an excuse for a protracted chase, Villeneuve and his screenwriter Taylor Sheridan are more ambitious. Their examine the amoral consequences of a lengthy drug war, although the plot does not always match the Villeneuve’s powerful, oppressive filmmaking.
Working with cinematographer Roger Deakins, Villeneuve sees the American southwest as a lifeless environment that punctuates silence with death. The first shot is of a suburban Phoenix home, seen from an impersonal distance, and an armed SWAT team cut the frame with their impressive firepower. The startling image strikes an uneasy tone, and never waivers from it. Our only entry point is Kate (Emily Blunt), an FBI agent who specializes in tactical seizures of cartel fronts. This latest raid is particularly haunting: her team discovers dozens of decaying bodies within the walls, and a bomb kills two of her teammates. Sicario has several action sequences, all of them relatively brief, yet they are brimming with suspense and a sense of inevitability (Jóhann Jóhannsson’s memorable score is a thrum of ominous percussion, sounding sort of like the devil’s heartbeart).
Angry and unnerved, Kate joins a taskforce headed by Matt (Josh Brolin), a shady DOD advisor. Their first mission stretches the limits of the law: under the guise of a trip to El Paso, Kate and Matt head to Juarez, Mexico, in order to bring a cartel lieutenant stateside. Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) accompanies the team, and Kate is wary of him because he’s not American, and his reserved nature somehow makes him more menacing than anyone else she encountered. Kate follows Matt and Alejandro as they try and rattle the cartel leader, but their tactics call into question everything she understands about law enforcement, due process, and common decency.
Prior to screenwriting, Taylor Sheridan worked as an actor – his most memorable work was as a cop on the FX series Sons of Anarchy – and his sense of pacing and character suggest he could switch careers. The script falters with the sort of hard-boiled dialogue that functions as little more than macho posturing, but his character development is economical in a way that keeps us guessing. All the major players, including Kate, keep their agendas to themselves and the bigger picture comes out in a natural, quietly horrifying way. Kate has her suspicions, and Matt acknowledges or refutes them based on his convenience, not the convenience of the plot. Her character is more passive than most heroes – she’s there to serve as the moral center – and it’s to Sheridan and Blunt’s credit how she convincingly fights against her perfunctory purpose in the taskforce. A sub-plot involving Kate and a cop (Jon Bernthal) unfolds with suspense that cuts deep since it’s also depressingly familiar.
No matter the scale, the action complicates how Villeneuve and Sheridan feel about this material. There are two interrogation scenes: torture is heavily implied in the first interrogation, while the second plays out with a mix of body horror and black comedy. Alejandro and Matt clearly believe the ends justify the means, and they’re emboldened by a government that turns a blind eye to their efforts, so the filmmakers’ attitude towards the subject may lie in the filmmaking.
Some critics compare Sicario to Zero Dark Thirty – Villeneuve invites the comparison in interviews for the film – yet this is more of a genre picture than anything else. The drug war background adds credibility to the plot, yet the focus on gore and violence suggest this a serious thriller, not a serious film that happens to be thrilling. Unlike Zero Dark Thirty, Sicario will not inspire any Senate hearings, although there is a message here, too. The trickle-down effect of domestic policy is what allows men like Matt and Alejandro to stretch the law, while innocents like Kate have no choice to tolerate it, albeit with disgust.
Villeneuve has a smart way to make sense of action that’s inherently chaotic. He establishes an early rhythm with overhead shots, mostly of the dessert, and ominous vistas also serve as a way to lay out the battle lines. There is a bravado sequence at the border crossing, and the ominous image of an SUV convoy also establish the sight lines of Kate and the others. Most of the action is from Kate’s perspective, until Sheridan leaves her to follow Alejandro. Del Toro is a strange actor, one who uses vocal tics to his advantage, and here he also has the commanding physical presence of Brando at his peak.
The inexorable climax is considerably darker than what we might fight find in a typical Hollywood thriller. Villeneuve and Sheridan earn their final moments, especially given their methodical build-up to it, yet it lands on an odd, perfunctory note. Maybe they’re too effective for their own good: Sicario’s unwavering descent to despair means that by the time Villeneuve and Sheridan get around to some moral resolution, we’re already too numb to appreciate it.