Sicario movie review - 'This moody crime thriller is a tour de force'
It is Mexico's great misfortune to share a long and porous border with a super wealthy country that's hopelessly addicted to drugs. The race to control the multi-billion dollar US cocaine market has caused the violent deaths of at least 120,000 people and warped and distorted Mexican society beyond recognition.
In Hollywood's hands, unfortunately, this very serious subject has quickly ossified into formulaic horror and cliché, to the extent that one expects and is no longer even shocked by the be-headings, torture scenes and swaggering, amoral narcos.
Denis Villeneuve's Sicario fights bravely to avoid these lazy storytelling short-cuts, and for the most part succeeds. It's a boldly directed and beautifully photographed thriller that tells a pretty straightforward story exceptionally well.
For the ordinary viewer to really get a sense of the madness of the Mexican Drug War, we need an un-brutalised observer to act as our proxy. That is Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), an FBI agent who leads a team into a house in Arizona that's been used as a base by a cartel. There, after a brief shoot-out, they find the corpses of dozens of anonymous gang victims sealed within the walls, and as the team is reeling from this shock a booby-trap bomb explodes, killing two of Kate's colleagues.
She wants revenge, and is given a chance when she's seconded to an elite team of government operatives who are searching for the culprits. Her new boss, Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) may be CIA, or something worse, and smiles winningly when he tells Kate that they're going across the border into Juarez to extract a cartel suspect.
In a brilliantly handled sequence reminiscent of Michael Mann at his best, Kate, Graver and a heavily armed team sweep across the border in armoured vehicles, collect a hooded prisoner and race back towards El Paso surrounded on all sides by Mexican police who may or may not be in the pay of the cartels. As they queue for the border check, the team spot armed men in two cars on either side of them, and take them all out without hesitation.
Kate is shocked by this lawless brutality, but when Graver shrugs it off and tells her to focus on the prize, she begins to wonder what she's gotten herself mixed up in. Most worrying of all is Matt's partner, Alejandro (Benicio del Toro), a tall and taciturn South American of uncertain origin who belongs to no official agency and seems to have an agenda of his own. It's he who beats and threatens the prisoner they collected in Saurez into giving up the location of his boss, cartel king Fausto Alarcon. And what happens next will traumatise Kate forever.
Sicario does raise the vexing question of how far states are prepared to go in the fight against a vicious, conscious-less enemy, but it doesn't take this or anything else too seriously, and mainly works as a surface level crime thriller. What makes it really special is the way that story is told: Taylor Sheridan's terse script never gets bogged down in needless wordiness or exposition, leaving Denis Villeneuve and master cinematographer Roger Deakins free to fill their canvas visually.
It's a film full of spectacular and memorable images, from that shoot-out on the border to the haunting moment when Kate and an armed unit are silhouetted against a blood-red sunset as they disappear into a tunnel that will lead them back into Mexico, and to war. She reminded me of Orpheus, en route to the underworld.
Ms Blunt, who's normally associated with lighter, more comic roles, makes a decent every-woman, but her character is sketchily fleshed out and seems more like a plot devise than a person. This film belongs to Josh Brolin, whose humour barely masks an innate viciousness, and especially to Del Toro, who stalks the edges of this very accomplished thriller like a hungry wolf who alone knows what's really going on.
Sicario (15A, 121mins)