Somewhere between the Wild West and Iraq lies Juarez, Mexico. A brightly coloured urban sprawl with a population of just over 1.3 million, in 2008 its murder rate was the highest in the world: 130 per 100,000. According to Sicario, the latest film from director Denis Villeneuve, it’s a city where mutilated corpses hang from overpasses, a warning from the cartels. It’s in this environment that FBI agent Kate Mercer (Emily Blunt) finds herself, part of a taskforce of murky jurisdiction, a soldier in the war on drugs – emphasis on “war”. Drugs, in fact, barely enter into it.
Along with her partner Reggie (fellow Brit, Daniel Kaluuya1), Kate finds herself seconded to a unit under the control of the smirking, sandal-wearing Matt Garver (Josh Brolin). He’s assisted by Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), a former prosecutor with a haunted look about him.2 Together they’re out to bring down a mysterious drug lord, Fausto Alarcon, whose death Alejandro claims will inoculate the region against future violence. Kate’s boss (a put-upon Victor Garber) assures her of the operation’s legality, but its clear there’s a hidden agenda at play.
The type of film that Michael Mann might once have directed, Sicario combines moral and legal murkiness with Roger Deakins’ searingly bright cinematography.6 Blunt’s steely, mistrustful protagonist7 is perfectly complimented by Alejandro’s quiet certainty in their cause. Set in a world where bearded Delta Force veterans rub shoulders with US Marshalls dressed for the rodeo, and corpses are walled up as far north as Phoenix8, Sicario uses the narrow lens of an action thriller to pose the question of where you, in the quest for order, you draw the (border)line.
SUMMARY: Sicario is a smoothly directed, sun-bleached action thriller. Less lurid than The Counsellor, less poetic than No Country for Old Men, its ambiguity is compelling even if never quite coheres into greatness.
Sicario gets an 8.0 out of 10
1 Best known as a TV comic actor, Kaluuya’s humorous balefulness is a perfect fit for the oft-side-lined Reggie.
2 With that sense of weary reluctance, Del Toro can turn a trip to the watercooler into an existential journey. As with Brolin – whose performance has shades of Det. Bigfoot in Inherent Vice – this is very much his metier.
3 Able to switch to a sort of petulant intensity in an instant, Donovan’s casting as a psycho mama’s boy gangster in the upcoming series 2 of Fargo would seem to be inspired.
4 Sicario also has a darkly casual relationship with torture, with Alejandro breaking out a brutal-looking wet willy-type move on a would-be assassin.
5 The film’s use of night vision bring back memories of Clarice Starling venturing into the killer’s lair in Silence of the Lambs, only with Kate’s complicity as arguably a more pressing factor than any of the unseen tunnel-dwellers.
6 The contrast between the crystal lighting and black uniforms provides an almost film noir feel to several scenes.
7 She’s a refreshingly well-shaded character, even given a healthy dose of sexuality in the form of a hook-up with a hunky Jon Bernthal, though their encounter doesn’t go quite as planned.8 Their blood-smeared faces, visible through plastic bags, recall Hannibal (the top-tier TV series as opposed to the subpar film).