After a raid gone bad, FBI Agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt, on a hell of a winning streak) is detailed by a “consultant” (Josh Brolin), probably CIA, to ride shotgun on what’s supposed to be a trip to Phoenix but turns out to be over the border in Juarez. Also tagging along is the mysterious Alejandro (Benicio del Toro), who is so stoic and immediately, obviously hyper-competent that he’s instantly terrifying. Macer knows she’s in over her head, but her idealism and toughness make her believe she can do some good.
Almost every shot in Sicario involves some corrupting element. The white soil of a sun-blasted Arizona housing tract is invaded by a black-armored SWAT team. In a shaft of sunlight through some curtains we can see that a house is choked with dust. But corruption itself is rote. The film’s backdrop is Mexico and the drug war. We should expect corruption. Sicario is about the much more fatalistic idea that it’s not only pervasive but an intrinsic part of any system; exposing it is not just dangerous but futile.
Almost every shot in Sicario involves some corrupting element.
From a handful of recent features, Denis Villeneuve has quickly become known for his almost comically portentous atmosphere. But here, with the help of legendary DP Roger Deakins (who also shot Villeneuve’s gorgeous and hysterically grim Prisoners), the director finally melds that sensibility with precise, pulpy thriller mechanics in a way that probably nobody’s done since Fincher with Seven. All of Sicario is infused with obvious dread, in the open for all to see, whether in a shot of a tiny airplane shadow against the burnt Mexican landscape or one of a Delta Force squad disappearing into a tar-pit-like murk at sunset. It’s simultaneously beautiful and terrible.
Perhaps no current actress is better suited to a role that demands both intense physical presence and vulnerability than Blunt. Macer’s guileless sense of justice isn’t just a cliched costly liability but also an emotionally dangerous mistake. When she does eventually uncover the truth about her Mexico mission, it’s simultaneously an act of evil and a bureaucratic banality necessary to maintain some semblance of order in a completely irrational universe. The cancerous rot that’s revealed isn’t special, it’s just policy.