Film review: Sicario (15)

Emily Blunt gives a finely etched performance as a US agent hunting a Mexican drug lord in this stylish masterclass of sustained tension

Emily Blunt in Sicario
Emily Blunt in Sicario
Emily Blunt in Sicario

Sicario (15)

Directed by: Denis Villeneuve

Starring: Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin, Daniel Kaluuya

Rating: ****

Mainlining dread, drama and stunningly orchestrated action sequences, this narcotics thriller starts as it means to go on: with a heart-jacking moment of mayhem that puts us immediately on the front line of the drug war with all its chaos and confusion. The location is a suburb in Phoenix, Arizona, near the Mexican border; the situation a raid on a Mexican cartel-owned safe-house. Leading the FBI’s kidnap-response team is Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), a tough field agent whose steely professionalism can’t disguise the rookie fear of the unknown etched on her face. That fear is not misplaced either. Within minutes of her team’s Humvee demolishing the front of the targeted house, she makes a grim discovery: multiple bodies hidden in the walls. What the hell has she stumbled into?

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There are more surprises before this opening salvo comes to a close, but this sense of foreboding, of always being on the back foot, always playing catch-up, is something the film sticks with, as we stick with Kate, our entry point into this dangerous new world with its fluctuating rules of engagement. Before long she’s being introduced to Matt (Josh Brolin), a smirking drug enforcement officer whose precise job description isn’t made clear to her right away. Impressed by her fortitude and her lack of family commitments – and wary too of her partner Reggie’s training as a lawyer (he’s played by the young British actor Daniel Kaluuya) – Matt picks Kate to join an inter-agency task force that’s been put together to purse the owner of the aforementioned domestic crypt into Mexico.

The plan is to let him return so they can flush out his boss and dismantle the cartel from the top-down, a course of action that doesn’t sit well with Kate, a by-the-book agent and not the type to readily volunteer to operate in a country in which American law enforcement has no jurisdiction. But Kate’s also determined to make a difference and get ahead in this alpha-male-dominated environment – traits Matt picks up on as he sequesters her for a team operating within the shady black-ops world of the CIA. The agency’s lack of transparency is further symbolised by the presence of Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), some kind of Mexican prosecutor whose function and position is kept deliberately opaque, but who seems to have connections on all sides of this increasingly dirty war.

Right off the bat, the subject matter and Del Toro’s casting brings to mind Steven Soderbergh’s Oscar-winning Traffic, but Sicario – the title is slang for hit man – actually has more in common with Zero Dark Thirty, The Silence of the Lambs and Michael Mann’s underrated Miami Vice. In part that’s down to Blunt, whose character is very much in the Jessica Chastain/Jodie Foster mould of realistically capable, admirably pragmatic female protagonists whose moral code is challenged by the degree of rule-bending required to get the job done. We feel for her because she’s vulnerable in finely nuanced ways; she’s not some fantasy figure of female empowerment whose strength is signified by her ability to kick ass.

But those aforementioned reference points are also down to Quebecois director Denis Villeneuve, whose muscular approach to the material recalls Mann in the way he combines authentic-sounding tech-talk, precision action and modish visuals within the framework of a pulse-pounding procedural. Villeneuve – who won an Academy Award for his 2011 drama Incendies and impressed with his war-on-terror riffing serial killer movie Prisoners and cerebral doppelganger mystery Enemies – has been building a solid body of work over the past ten years and is starting to mark himself out as a real auteur of hard-hitting action. He’s certainly not ashamed of exploiting the script’s action thriller roots (the film marks the screenwriting debut of actor Taylor Sheridan, who had a recurring role on TV’s Sons of Anarchy). Working once again with genius cinematographer Roger Deakins – who gave Prisoners its rain-lashed beauty – Villeneuve has crafted innovative set pieces that are jaw-dropping in design and execution, but also in formalistic purpose.

A shoot-out on a gridlocked overpass near border control, for instance, is a masterclass in sustained tension, but it symbolises too the incremental, strike-first war of attrition US government forces have resorted to as they seek to control rather than stem the flow of narcotics into the country. “This is the future,” Brolin’s Matt tells a shocked Kate once it’s over; the only option, he seems to be saying, is to get on board and find a way through it that will allow you to live with yourself, something further symbolised by a stunningly shot infra-red night-time assault in the labyrinthine tunnels the cartels use to ship people and product between Mexico and its wealthy neighbour.

This is a murky, messy world, the air of unease further intensified by Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score, but Villeneuve navigates it with real style and verve. Stunning stuff.