A brutal, brilliant and culturally relevant thriller, Denis Villeneuve’s ‘Sicario’ announces itself with a punch to the gut of cinematic bravado. Roger Deakins’ evocative and immaculate camerawork pulls the audience toward a drug house on the Mexican border that a task force literally crashes into. At first, it seems like the location might be a bust, but then the cops notice dozens of rotting corpses hidden in the drywall. The modus operandi of Villeneuve’s vicious movie is made immediately clear. The Mexican drug war is hidden deeper and its results are even deadlier than most authorities would dare to guess.
The FBI agent at the center of that big bust is Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), who along with her partner (Daniel Kaluuya) have been tracking the presence of the cartel along the Arizona border. They think they’re starting to get results, but in reality are only scratching the surface. Soon after, Kate is brought into a secret task force led by Matt (Josh Brolin at his growling, sarcastic best). Matt makes it immediately clear that Kate is on a need-to-know basis and doesn’t need to know anything. She’s told that she’s going on a mission to El Paso, but ends up in Mexico transporting a secret prisoner across the border with small army that can barely keep up with the cartel’s own gun power. She’s also joined by Alejandro (Benecio Del Toro), whose origins and motivations are even more secretive, yet clearly personal. Revealing anything more would be deeply unfair, since Taylor Sheridan’s script (which feels like it’s been more than a little touched up by Villeneuve) is actually filled with surprises that deserve to be discovered as the filmmakers intended.
Villeneuve and company actually have quite a bit to say about the international drug war in ‘Sicario’ and make their harsh points forcefully. Still, you could be forgiven for never noticing the message behind the madness given just how brilliantly and brutally constructed this thing is as a thriller and action flick. The set-pieces are big and vicious with a variety of standouts from the deeply disturbing opening sequence to the stunner of a traffic jam shootout in the middle, plus a breath-holding finale. The movie will pin you to your seat through sheer cinematic spectacle, but is never merely a thrill ride. The action all hits hard because it serves a purpose and depicts a genuine hyper-violent world. Though many bodies hits the floor in typical action movie manner, Villeneuve includes a clever subplot that simultaneously bears the weight of the human casualties of the drug war and gives the innocent Mexican citizens a voice.
The entire cast is brilliant as well. Like the movie itself, they all initially appear to be stock genre movie types, but all that gloss is eventually pealed back to make them poignantly human. ‘Sicario’ is proof that mainstream genre entertainment need not merely exist for surface thrills. Villeneuve’s first Hollywood feature ‘Prisoners’ may have been a fairly average thriller elevated by spectacular filmmaking, but ‘Sicario’ proves that the director can translate the technically beautiful and devastatingly powerful style he founded in art house entries like ‘Incendies’, ‘Polytechnique’ and ‘Enemy’ to projects that still qualify as mainstream entertainment. He does it so effectively here that you can’t help but think that the upcoming ‘Blade Runner’ sequel might actually be in good hands.
Hopefully, Villeneuve can continue to expand the ambitions of his Hollywood projects along with the scale of the productions, because ‘Sicario’ just might be the best film of his entire career, Hollywood or otherwise.