Though the last four films from Denis Villeneuve have been shot, or mostly set in different countries, the thematic ground they cover and worldview they adopt share common territory. His latest, Sicario, is simultaneously the director’s most commercial work, and his most singular. Taking a Neapolitan approach to the crime thriller, Sicario sees the Canadian director tracking American law enforcement agents as they operate in and around Mexican border cities. As with Incendies, Prisoners, and Enemy before it, the journey makes for a twisty, gorgeous, and dark tour through pits of personal obsession and horrifying violence.
Sicario kicks off with not one bang, but several. A nifty early shot takes the perspective of an F.B.I. armored car as it’s on a collision course with the front wall of a suburban Arizona home. The target is a suspected drug house, one that’s, literally, packed with corpses. During the ensuing fracas, gore flies through the air as the body count piles up, and the whole operation ends in an explosion of vomit and hellfire. “What are we going to do,” Emily Blunt’s veteran fed, Kate Macer, asks a disturbingly cool D.O.J. rep after the smoke has cleared. “Overreact dramatically,” Josh Brolin’s Matt replies.
And overreact Sicario does, an impressive feat, considering the intensity with which those opening minutes are handled. Macer is drafted as a tagalong to Matt’s anti-cartel taskforce, and the actions they undertake frequently beggar belief. A shootout at the Mexican-American border that leaves more than a half-dozen people dead gets swept under the rug; Matt likes to whistle while he wetworks, using a marching band tune as an overture to torture; Benicio Del Toro’s despondent and mysterious Alejandro begins the film as the taskforce’s attack dog, and ends it as a one man army.
In lesser hands, the frankness with which Sicario presents its more ridiculous moments would be laughable. But the wild ride first-time screenwriter Taylor Sheridan has in store never manages to buck Villeneuve. No matter how questionable its events may sometimes seem there’s in-the-moment logic driving Sicario that’s complementary to the grittily baroque reality it maintains. From minute one, the film is a brawny and suspenseful snipe hunt, one that’s always intelligently made and performed, even as its story often borders on the ludicrous.
Unlike Enemy, Sicario doesn’t have to introduce itself with a promise that there’s method behind the ensuing madness. Instead, the film opens with a title card that gives conflicting meanings to its name. Blunt’s Macer embodies this confusion of purpose, stumbling in the unknown of a procedural plot that’s had every other line of exposition redacted. She’s not sure why she’s been chosen for this mission, and like many Villeneuve characters, is driven by a search for answers that could destroy her. Mostly, what she finds is reassurance from superiors that her presence will help make a real dent in the drug war, even as every day in Matt’s company further erodes the lines separating national jurisdictions, and law from chaos.
It’s a feature, not a bug that Macer spends much of the story as a passive onlooker, she struggling, as we do, to sort out what the real objective here is. Despite the bruising the script puts her through, perhaps the most implausible moment in all of Sicario is when Macer’s partner (Daniel Kaluuya) tells her she looks, “like shit.” Even at her worst, Blunt, like the rest of the principles, is playing haunted, not haggard. You don’t peg her as a natural fit for this brutal milieu, just as you don’t believe that Hollywood-masculine Brolin and Del Toro would last five seconds with the roughnecks they bark orders at on screen. The performances are uniformly high-caliber, yet the appearance of the actors delivering them is always betraying the ghastliness of their character’s existence.
Again, this disconnect between what we’re seeing and how it’s being presented can be read as intentional. Villeneuve’s movies provide beautiful windows into ugly worlds. Prisoners cinematographer Roger Deakins lenses Sicario using the director’s favorite colors, the desert countryside providing canvasses on which to paint frescos in nuclear blue, blood red, and piss stain yellow. The space and emptiness afforded by these landscapes is unsettling, even before Jóhann Jóhannsson’s spare, but oppressive score becomes a factor. Scenes shot through closed circuit cameras and thermal heat sensors visualize the world’s miasma of moral grey areas, while the twilight invasion of a drug runner tunnel is captured as though through night vision goggles.
The latter sequence most specifically evokes Sicario’s passing resemblance to Zero Dark Thirty, but that film had patience and history on its side. By comparison, Sicario is a denser than average action movie, featuring slick setpieces, a top-notch cast, and a sharp look thats tar-black finish goes nicely with the story’s. As evidenced by the final shot, Villeneuve is looking to class up genre entertainment, not make it informative or vital. This makes for Sicario’s cleverest contradiction: it’s more powerful the less seriously you take it.
The acting, craft, and tone of Sicario are so precise that the absurdity of this cartel yarn is both its greatest weakness, and maybe its entire point.