Sicario opens with text that explains the historical origins and current usage of the title. This is the only time it panders to its audience. The rest of its 121 minutes are relentless and unbearably tense, taking you from a corpse-filled house in Arizona to a very illegal criminal extraction in Juárez, Mexico. It only slows down to remind you how batshit crazy this all is, or to blow you out of your seat with an unexpected jolt of brutality. It dances like a ballerina along the fine line between reality and fiction, pushing everything to 11 while feeling uncomfortably accurate in its depiction of the War on Drugs. It's everything you could want from a crime thriller.
Emily Blunt fills the role of audience surrogate as Kate Macer, an FBI agent who unknowingly signs herself up for a questionable operation against the Mexican cartel. Josh Brolin exudes the perfect amount of savvy smarm as her professional seducer, shadowy government agent Matt Graver, as does Benicio del Toro in a "welcome back to our loving hearts" role as screams-in-his-sleep mystery man Alejandro Gillick.
Graver and Gillick try to keep Macer and her partner Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya) in the dark on what they're really doing, but as shootouts break out along the Mexican border and civilian lives are put increasingly at risk, the two FBI agents demand answers. We all know that honesty is not the most useful policy in the cinematic realm, and Macer's new knowledge instantly places her much deeper in harm's way.
All of this action unfolds along the deserts of northern Mexico and the American Southwest, two areas overrun by illegal immigrants, drug smuggling, and bloodthirsty violence. Director Denis Villeneuve (Incendies, Prisoners) unflinchingly depicts all of it, lingering on bodies hanging from an overpass and having Macer almost nonchalantly click through online image searches of severed heads and mutilated corpses.
It's the perfect contrast to Roger Deakins' masterful visual work, where he portrays vast plains of sand and the labyrinthine entryway into the United States as empty playgrounds for both sides of this hopeless war. One shot, where a team of soldiers hike down a ridge at sunset, is captured in infrared and seared into my mind. It almost looks fake, like a cutscene in a video game, but it's actually the brilliance of the world's finest living (and somehow not Oscar-winning) cinematographer.
Couple that with a booming, gasp-inducing score from last year's Academy Award winner Jóhann Jóhannsson (The Theory of Everything) and you've got an assault on the senses unlike any I've seen in quite a while. The music is Under the Skin meets Inception, implying that certain doom is around the corner while slamming droning wails into your ears. More than a few times I sat there, mouth agape, reminding myself to breathe.
It's the latest, and greatest, in a series of popular entertainments (starting with The Wire) that represent the War on Drugs as a soul-crushing, never-ending affair. Everyone has their part to play—from the dealers trying to survive in a floundering city to the cops who make their living destroying the head only to see three more grow back—and countless participants with varying degrees of involvement end up crushed by its perpetual machinations.
In that way, Sicario made me think of The Matrix, only this hopeless endeavor doesn't exist behind the scenes as computer code. Its players are largely self-aware, its temptations are far too addicting to ever be defeated, and its violence somehow continues to find new peaks.
To the credit of Villeneuve and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan, Macer isn't a hero who comes out of nowhere to bust the system; she's instantly in over her head, her strings being pulled by puppet masters who see ten steps down the line. She's extremely good at her job (and other than one near-sex scene, her gender is never a factor) but Graver and Gillick are operating at a level so far beyond her comprehension, one she never even considered before. Watching her realize this is tragically brilliant.
None of this makes Sicario unique, but it does make it top-of-the-line for this genre. You'll leave the theater having been rocked to your core, by the music, the visuals, the perfectly sculpted everything. Not everyone enjoys a sour feeling in their mouth while the credits roll, but that's the only way to tell a story like this one.