Film Review: Sicario

Blunt, Brutal Drug War Drama Finds Cops And Robbers (But Not Good Guys And Bad Guys) Along The Us-Mexico Border

Devin D. O'Leary
5 min read
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Sicario is one of those ripped-from-the-headlines thrillers that hits so close to home it’s uncomfortable. What with all of Donald Trump’s blustery rhetoric about murderers and rapists flooding out of Mexico and our own proximity to tensions on the US-Mexican border, the film is guaranteed a strong audience of curious viewers—at least here in the American Southwest.

But there’s more than mere exploitative timeliness at work in
Sicario. The knife-sharp drama stars Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro, all of whom are on upward career trajectories these days. It’s written with Swiss watch timing by Taylor Sheridan (an actor from “Veronica Mars” and “Sons of Anarchy”) and directed with the punching power of a heavyweight boxer by French-Canadian Denis Villeneuve (who’s made waves with his past thrillers Incendies, Enemy and Prisoners). As in Villeneuve’s previous work, Sicario explores the morality of revenge—asking if it’s OK to do bad, bad things so long as you’re doing them to bad, bad, bad people.

Blunt (
The Devil Wears Prada, Edge of Tomorrow) headlines as Kate Macer, a no-nonsense FBI field agent working on a special anti-kidnapping squad in Arizona. Many of her cases involve undocumented immigrants who have been captured by human traffickers. Following a breathless and bravura opening sequence that piles grisly thrill upon grisly thrill, however, Kate realizes she’s not in Kansas anymore. The people she’s dealing with these days, fueled by the unending drug trade pouring over the border, are getting far worse. Following the traumatic events of the opening sequence, Kate finds herself recruited by a hush-hush anti-drug task force led by a mysterious Defense Department contractor named Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and his even more mysterious South American “advisor” (Benicio Del Toro).

Graver is tightlipped about the whole operation, but he assures Kate they’re working to cripple the drug trade along the US-Mexico border. Kate suspects Graver works for the CIA. Since the CIA is banned from operating inside the United States, that makes this pseudo-military operation (involving US Marshals and members of the US Army’s Delta Force) highly illegal. And when the group makes a jaunt across the border to transport a prisoner back to the US (a major no-no for the FBI), Kate’s suspicions are confirmed.

The question is, how long will she stick with it? Graver tells her the operation needs her unique expertise. But she’s relegated to sitting in the backseat most of the time. What is she really doing here? Kate has seen firsthand the death, destruction and chaos these drug kingpins can wreak. But is the American government fighting fire with fire, burning down the house in the process? Blunt plays her character with much the same steely confidence Jodie Foster brought to
The Silence of the Lambs mixed with just enough youthful naïveté to convince herself she’s fighting on the right side. The point, of course, is there’s no good side or bad side in this never-ending drug war. It’s just a war, with both sides trying to rack up the biggest body count.

Brolin plays his character as a smiling stoner in beach sandals—and his nonstop geniality makes him all the scarier. He’s like The Dude from
The Big Lebowski crossed with Dick Cheney. Del Toro, on the other hand, projects an icy resolve as the man whose true identity will prove crucial in the film’s twisty final act. He hardly says a word the whole film, but his silent back-and-forth with Brolin speaks volumes. Thanks to the three strong leads, the acting is rock solid. There are probably even a few award season nominations in the bunch—certainly for the impeccable Blunt. But the film is all Villeneuve’s show.

From the opening sequence onward, he stages a series of almost unbearably tense set-pieces that read like
Se7en crossed with Traffic. One scene takes place on the bridge from Mexico into the US. It’s one of the best, bullet-riddled car chases you’ll ever see—except everything stays stock-still, immobilized in traffic. Thanks to some suspenseful editing and a score that sounds like two steamships colliding in the night, the moment plays out as nail-bitingly intense.

Until now, Villeneuve has come across as a more grim, less colorful version of Michael Mann (
Manhunter, Heat, Miami Vice). His films, brilliant as they have been, have tended to scare off audiences with their dour ideals. Here, though, he comes into his own as a purveyor of pitch-black entertainment. Even with its lightless subject matter, Sicario moves at such a fever pitch and with such expectation-confounding confidence that few will be turned off by this punishing existential thriller.


did I leave the coffee maker on?”

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