Practically every character in Sicario runs around brandishing a firearm, and yet each time a gun goes off in the movie, you’re startled, and you flinch. The sound never loses its urgency, its sense of immediate danger, straight through to the closing shot of the film. This is not the first movie about the war being waged across the U.S.-Mexico border over the drug trade, but it’s the first film in which the aura of constant menace and threat lingers and follows you home. The evil is palpable, almost physical, and it hovers like a cloud. It’s toxic, and it poisons anyone who comes within reach of it.
The point of Sicario, which was written by Taylor Sheridan (an actor best known for playing a cop on Sons of Anarchy) and directed by Denis Villeneuve (who previously delved into murky moral waters with Incendies and Prisoners) is that no one gets out of the drug war alive — or at least unscathed. This is a radically different feeling than Steven Soderbergh conveyed with his Oscar-winning Traffic 15 years ago, another movie about the same subject matter that argued that the forces of good would somehow win out.
Sicario brushes aside that sort of optimism. In its opening setpiece — a nerve-shredding raid by the FBI and SWAT forces on a home in Chandler, AZ — a female agent, Kate (Emily Blunt), encounters a ghastly, unthinkable horror that primes the stage for what follows. This is what the war on drugs looks like on the ground level: corpses entombed in walls, booby traps, grave collateral damage. Kate, who has borne witness to the carnage, is drafted by a U.S. government operative, Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), who may or may not be CIA, to help flush out a Mexican kingpin responsible for countless murders.
Kate signs on for the mission, even though she’s not made privy to its details. Soon she’s in Juárez, where dismembered corpses hang from powerlines and flyers for the missing line the streets. Kate does what she’s told, following the lead of Graver and his associate Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), who claims to be a former Colombian prosecutor now helping the U.S. government. When she’s caught in a gunfight south of the border that is clearly illegal, she complains to her superiors, only to be shut down. In Mexico, they tell her, the law doesn’t apply.
But if it doesn’t apply there, then why here? Sicario was shot by the formidable Roger Deakins (the greatest cinematographer never to have won an Oscar — yet) and scored by Jóhann Jóhannsson with electronica that throbs and churns with dread and fear. It’s music from the apocalypse. The narrative is simple, but it’s layered and diabolical. Villeneuve wrings tension out of simple things (you’ve never seen a jug of water look this scary) to match the hair-raising suspense of elaborate setpieces, such as a chase through underground tunnels seen through night-vision goggles that makes Zero Dark Thirty look like schoolyard games.
Blunt is the audience surrogate, trying to make sense of the spiraling madness before her, constantly catching up because she’s never played a game quite like this one (here is a rarity in the crime-drama genre, a female protagonist who acts like a woman instead of a man). Brolin is fiendish and seductive, the sort of devil so sure of himself he will smile as he lies to your face and doesn’t care if you believe him. But the dark heart of Sicario belongs to Del Toro as Alejandro, who is always paying attention and seems to be three steps ahead of everyone else. Del Toro hasn’t seemed this energetic and present since, well, Traffic. Early in the film, he tells Kate “Nothing will make sense to your American ears, and you will doubt everything you do. But in the end, it will all make sense.” This harrowing movie proves him horribly, mercilessly right.
Cast: Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin, Victor Garber, Jon Bernthal, Daniel Kaluuya.
Director: Denis Villeneuve.
Screenwriter: Taylor Sheridan.
A Lionsgate Films release. Running time: 121 minutes. Vulgar language, heavy violence, gore, sexual situations, strong adult themes. Opens Friday Oct. 2 at area theaters.