Drenched in many shades of ambiguity as it dramatizes a complex U.S.-led effort to take out a major Mexican drug lord south of the border, Denis Villeneuve's intensely physical new work is no less disturbing than his previous features "Prisoners" and "Incendies" and should be able to generate mid-level business akin to the former due to its relatable lawman (and law-woman) elements.
After world premiering it in competition at the Cannes Film Festival, Lionsgate held back the domestic commercial release until Sept. 18. (The film gets a wider release October 2.)
An opening note explains that "sicario" is cartel slang for hitman, derived from a term dating to ancient Jerusalem describing hunters of Romans.
Loosely used, it's a word that could apply to almost every character in this tense tale, which is not difficult to follow even if it does demand that close attention be paid.
The script by first-time screenwriter Taylor Sheridan, who played Deputy Hale on television's "Sons of Anarchy" until the character was killed off at the beginning of the third season, quickly establishes an environment in which everyone is capable of killing or being killed, as well as a roster of characters for whom the labels "good guy" and "bad guy" are so relative as to essentially become irrelevant.
Effectively operating as the audience's surrogate is Kate Macy (Emily Blunt), a first-rate FBI agent specializing in kidnapping cases, who, with a SWAT team, discovers a "house of horrors" in which dozens of rotting corpses wrapped in plastic are hidden behind the walls.
The house is owned by the Diaz family, a Sonora cartel operating on both sides of the U.S./Mexican border. Kate kills one bad dude herself during the operation, which is considered so successful that she's paged to join a secret American task force whose mission is to lop off the Diaz clan's head.
Working in league with the Mexicans while knowing full well how compromised many of their security forces are, the Yank team welcomes its first female member (her black partner, played by Daniel Kaluuya, isn't selected although he still goes along for part of the ride). But its on-the-ground leader, Matt (Josh Brolin), amuses himself by explaining as little as possible to Kate about what's going on as they fly off in a private jet.
In a terrifically orchestrated set piece, the Americans cross in a huge caravan from El Paso to Ciudad Juarez, navigate through dicey neighborhoods in which naked mutilated bodies hang upside-down from an overpass, extricate their prey from prison, then get stuck in horrendous traffic near the border crossing as menacing tattooed guys with guns materialize from a nearby car.
Villeneuve and cinematographer Roger Deakins worked brilliantly together on "Prisoners" while employing a very dark palette of blacks, grays and deep greens.
Their collaboration here is equally great in a story and setting defined by parched desert tones, cheap and impermanent buildings, and vast, pale blue skies.
A preponderance of scenes involves information haves and have-nots, or situations where charatcers' motives are unclear.
The blocking, framing and use of lenses accentuate these disparities in ways that expertly heighten the tension and sense of uncertainty. There are also terrific aerial shots that show the border, including portions of the American-built fence, with great vividness.
The character who's most often, and intentionally, kept in the dark about what's going on is Kate.
Far from being a naive greenhorn, she's already somewhat embittered (she's divorced with no kids) and has trouble sorting out the chain of command, much less what's expected of her.
One of the big wheels in the heavily militarized operation is the world-weary Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), a native Colombian said to have formerly been a prosecutor in Mexico, who warns her that, "Nothing will make sense to your American ears. By the end, you will understand."
"Sicario" offers Blunt's character nothing in the way of military challenges that can quite rival what the actress took on last year in "Edge of Tomorrow."
Instead, she provides a sharply penetrating reading of a smart, resilient young woman whose desire to help out is no match for the deceptions and frustrating barriers placed in her way.
Seeing how much she has to contribute — to the missions at hand, to the country, to a personal relationship — it's sad bordering on tragic to think that she could end up as just another potential victim of an unending war that, in one way or another, poisons everyone it touches. Blunt's performance is first-rate.
There is plenty of heavy-duty action here, probably enough to sate audiences with genre appetites. But this is not a film in which a few heavily armed gringos can just strut into Mexico and take care of the problem with a few blasts of their big guns.
The macho guys and the armaments are here, all right, but "Sicario" very clearly makes its point about how deeply the roots of corruption are embedded in the soil of Mexico and the American Southwest. And, via Alejandro, it underlines how the problem has moved north, from Colombia up to Central America, Sonora and the American border.
In the end, Kate's desire to build a prosecutable case is trumped by jurisdictional issues, realities on the ground and personal vendettas, which are abiding. Good and legal intentions are as nothing in this world.
"This is the future, Kate," Matt advises her, and even when she briefly seeks a little personal R&R with a macho guy in a bar (Jon Bernthal), things are not what they seem.
How can an honest woman win? How can the U.S. retain a semblance of virtue in such a struggle? How can Mexico and countries further south diminish this curse? How can the contamination of drugs and blood money be reversed? Such are the questions the film acutely raises and that no one can properly answer.
Unlike Blunt's more dimensional Kate, the male characters are so prevented from showing their true selves by the professional roles they have taken on that they must remain a bit opaque. But from a behavioral point of view, the cast is outstanding.
Excellent as the real-life drug lord in the as-yet unreleased "Escobar: Paradise Lost," Del Toro underplays to strong effect here as a mysterious man clearly vying to live as many lives as a cat. Brolin is most engaging as the operations chief who bounces between laid-back somnolence and gung-ho exuberance at the flick of a switch, while Victor Garber properly plays the American boss man with intriguing opaqueness.
Shot in New Mexico, the production has been superbly decked out in every department. But special note must be made of the brilliantly idiosyncratic and disturbing score by Icelandic composer Johann Johannson, which cranks up the unease of key scenes with an electronic bass wallow that then descends to seemingly impossible depths of apocalyptic dread.