Sicario is a War on Drugs thriller with lean focus and expansive dismay. It finds terrifying situations and moral uncertainty in every scenario. Cartel violence is bleeding in the drug trade, causing chaos in Mexico and tension in border towns. But does that justify a swaggering ends-justify-the-means form of policing? This movie is drained of any semblance of triumphalism, so thoroughly unsettled by violence and corruption that it can’t even begin to think its way to a happy ending. We start with a taskforce led by a driven agent (Emily Blunt) investigating a kidnapping, slamming into a drug house in suburban Phoenix and finding walls lined with dead bodies, and a potentially fatal surprise in the shed out back. Soon the agent is pulled into a secret mission to take down a drug lord across the border. It seems like a good idea, but soon she questions her colleagues’ motives and tactics as the body count grows. They’re hunting people who do bad things, but must they do bad to do so?
That’s not an uncommon theme in crime fiction, blurring the lines between cop and criminal, painting in grey strokes. But what is uncommon here is the bottomless detached despair behind the slick surfaces and excitements. Blunt quickly finds herself marginalized, used as bureaucratic cover, or tasked with watching for deadly complications as the men leap forward ready to kill anyone suspicious. The leaders of the mission are a gruff flip-flop wearing Texan (Josh Brolin), who is determined to strike at the cartel within Mexico, saying his job is to “dramatically overreact,” and a reserved mystery man (Benicio Del Toro) who quietly refuses to tell his newest colleague where he comes from or what his goals are in any detail. Taylor Sheridan’s screenplay slowly develops the group dynamic as Blunt is brought along without being brought in. She’s there to help them, but they don’t seem to value her. She’s just another competent armed body to throw at the problem.
The camera follows steadily as this small group of law enforcement professionals hunt down leads through torture, intimidation, and deception, then attack selected targets in sudden, painful violence that’s over in quick splatter and rapid-fire flashes. But even in the downtime, a droning dread keeps suspense sickly simmering underneath. Director Denis Villeneuve is good at that, his missing-children thriller Prisoners and doppelganger head-scratcher Enemy making heavy existential draining disturbance out of concepts that are plenty unsettling to begin with. Sicario is his best film yet, taking a tense simmering score and patient camera slowly pushing and fading to create a world where danger can come from anywhere, where it’s not only difficult to decide what to do about bad guys, but it’s impossible to know who has your back and who hopes to use you as bait. It’s an old bromide to say two wrongs don’t make a right. This movie finds lines already crossed by tactics in motion before we, or Blunt, joins.
Forces on both sides of the conflict have gone from potential good intentions to chaotic bad outcomes, to a wrong, a wrong, a wrong. Getting right side up again is fraught. The film’s visual strategy is to literalize the blurry divisions between lawful actions and illegal intentions, between outsiders and in-groups, by creating dividing lines in many shots. We see light and shadow, glass-walled offices and long border fences, walls and cells, windows, balconies, curtains, and conference tables. Anything where people can find themselves physically or symbolically separated from others or from the outside world is casually deployed to create a sense of disjunction, of being stuck apart on two sides of any given issue. In one casually striking moment, Blunt is in a parking lot near a highway off-ramp, framed so the “WRONG WAY” signs are visible behind her. It’s hard to know what’s right, when the boundaries in every moment are so clear and yet so easily thoughtlessly crossed.
A thriller and a mystery, Sicario is serious crime pulp, grimly satisfied to follow process and arrive at what it thinks are harsh truths about cycles of violence and the inscrutable differences between legal killings (state sanctioned, or at least overlooked) and illegal ones. (“Sicario” means “hitman,” opening text informs.) There’s a responsible weight as violence is shot for impact, but not for thrills, choosing instead to linger on drips of blood or mutilated bodies instead of the moment of visceral excitement. At one point Blunt stands on a Texas rooftop, looking across the border to see flashes of distant Mexican firefights. “You like fireworks?” an officer asks. It’s a movie that doesn’t deny the allure of the action, and yet can’t be entirely satisfied by its trauma. After a long gut-wrenching sequence set in claustrophobic tunnels and in eerie green night vision, the climactic killings take place just off screen, dramatic and matter-of-fact, the frame’s focus on a hitman’s dispassionate glare.
Villeneuve’s consistent overwhelming sense of dread gives the violence and threats, and attendant paranoia, a feeling of a sickness spreading, infecting all who go near it. The characters who care about the ethics of the situations grow only more rattled. The ones who feel righteous about their actions grow only harder, more distant. Both move together through a tactile movie, the great cinematographer Roger Deakins capturing sharp images with vivid details (dust motes, dried blood, bruises, gouges, bullet holes, bandages), and with stately establishing shots like something out of The Shining’s opening finding police caravans snaking to their destinations or a plane’s shadow slowly lurking across desert canyons. In its specificity it creates a picture raw and cold, finding its leads in increasingly suspenseful and surprising encounters. But it is not cold out of heartlessness. It is a film of frightening clinical despair, with only worry and tension, and no clear moral answers.