Note: It's difficult to say much about Sicario without saying too much about Sicario. I've made an effort not to reveal too many details in this review, but I think it's fair to say that certain items of discussion here qualify as minor spoilers. My suggestion: go see the movie, then meet me back here. Alternately, read on. It's a free country.

A number of critics have compared Denis Villeneuve's Sicario unfavorably to Steven Soderbergh's Traffic, and it's easy to understand why. Traffic is a remarkably layered, complex examination of the war on drugs, spotlighting a host of different angles without ever losing sight of the human consequences. Sicario keeps its focus on the surface, sticking with the more thriller-friendly characters like government operatives and cartel leaders. However, it's worth noting that Sicario's goals are different from those of Soderbergh's film. Soderbergh offered a persuasive argument for why the war on drugs is a futile endeavor (a position less widely accepted by the general public in 2000 than it is now). Villeneuve accepts that the war is futile from the very beginning, and instead chooses to spotlight what the world has become as a result of continuing to engage in that fruitless struggle. Near the film's conclusion, one character offers something resembling a thesis statement: “This is a land of wolves now.”

Things start on a harrowing note. A standard-issue drug raid in Chandler, Arizona turns into something much larger, as FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt, Edge of Tomorrow) and her team discover dozens of corpses hidden within the walls of a house. The walls are rigged with explosives, and two agents are killed. Kate would love nothing more than a chance to take down the bastards responsible for this horrifying mess. Soon enough, she gets a chance: she's invited to join an interagency task force devoted to taking down elusive cartel kingpin Manuel Diaz. Without a moment's hesitation, she signs on.

The task force is led by Department of Defense adviser Matt Graver (Josh Brolin, No Country for Old Men), a laid-back guy who casually dismisses all of Kate's questions with a, “hey, don't worry about it!” grin. Matt's right-hand man is Alejandro (Benecio Del Toro, The Wolfman), whose allegiances are hard to pinpoint. Matt says Alejandro works for the D.O.D., but that's clearly a lie. So who does he actually work for? Hey, don't worry about it.

Unfortunately, there's a whole lot to worry about once the mission gets underway. No one seems to have any qualms about breaking the rules, and Kate's cries of bewilderment are perpetually ignored by the other members of the team. She finds herself increasingly in the dark about what, exactly, the specifics of the mission are, much less why the mission is being conducted the way it is. Eventually, she takes her complaints to her direct superior (Victor Garber, Titanic), who gently nudges her back out the door: “This is what you signed up for. If you think you're crossing a line, you should know that the line has moved.”

This material feels vaguely familiar, and we suspect that we're being set up for a Serpico/Training Day-style scenario in which Kate must finally step up and put a stop to “the way things are done.” However, Villeneuve resists formula and convention as often as possible, subverting our expectations and eschewing easy moral lessons in favor of dragging us deep into the bowels of a complex world of misery and despair. The horror of Kate's tale is not in the discovery of wrongdoing, but that the wrongdoing she discovers is entirely too deep-rooted to fix. Slowly but surely, our protagonist is cruelly shoved to the sidelines, allowing harder, colder characters to occupy the foreground. In his efforts to demonstrate the frustrating hopelessness of the world he depicts, Villeneuve makes the bold move of frustrating his viewers. He primes us for scenes of righteous ass-kicking, then refuses to indulge such fantasies. After all, that's all they would be: fantasies.

Sicario is a violent film, but Villeneuve continually resists the sort of squib-centric “money shots” that are typically the bread and butter of R-rated action-thrillers. Instead, he zeroes in on the things we'd rather ignore. He looks at the rotting corpses of decapitated men, at the men watching their family members being slaughtered in front of them, at the despairing eyes of people who know they are taking their last breath, at the mournful faces of the children who know their parents may never come home again. A lot of “gritty” message movies opt for the approach of rubbing our faces in the harsh realities of violence, but maybe we've become too desensitized to violence for that to have much impact. Sicario would rather force us to look at the impossibly high cost of violence. It's telling that the film's most startling, brutal, inhumane scene ultimately accomplishes nothing.

The performances are terrific, particularly the three leads. Blunt's steely-eyed ferocity eventually gives way to fear and confusion, and she's so good at capturing her character's overwhelming frustration at allowing herself to be trapped in this situation. Brolin continues to carve out a nice little space for himself as one of cinema's pre-eminent alpha male jerks, here playing an amoral authority figure who's as loose and friendly as Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen was uptight and mean. The most memorable performance comes from Del Toro, whose face is an eloquent portrait of weary sadness but whose actions are often startlingly ruthless. Del Toro is almost always good in everything he's in, but he's Eastwood-level iconic here.

Despite all of Villeneuve's efforts to avoid making the film a mere thriller, Sicario inevitably ends up delivering a sizable portion of thrills, anyway. That's largely due to the sheer skill of the craftsmanship, as Roger Deakins' terrific, sun-baked cinematography, Johan Johannson's tuneless but unnervingly effective score and Joe Walker's razor-sharp editing join forces to create a movie that frequently manages to make your heart beat a little faster. The constant tension is all the more remarkable because of the intentional vagueness of the film's plotting: other than Kate, who are we rooting for, exactly? What is the ideal outcome of this high-stakes scenario? What's going on here? We don't know, and Kate doesn't either. So she reluctantly presses on, assault rifle in hand, uncertain of who she's supposed to be aiming it at or who she's working for. Whatever happens, we can be sure the wolves will win.


Rating: ★★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 121 minutes
Release Year: 2015