If you've seen Incendies, Prisoners or, most recently, doppelgänger drama Enemy, you’ll know that Denis Villeneuve doesn’t do moral certainty. So he’s perfect directorial casting for Sicario, which broadly is to the War On Drugs what Zero Dark Thirty is to the War On Terror — though it’s entirely fictional and at the same time more honest (brutally so) about the ethical cost of its desperate measures. To the degree that, by its end, you’ll be wondering if you even know what is right and what is wrong anymore. Don’t let that put you off. Sicario may at times be a gruelling test of your sensibilities but it is an entirely brilliant thriller. Its snaking, slow-burning fuse of a plot sparks when Emily Blunt’s FBI “thumper” makes a gruesome discovery during a raid, then zigzags across the US/Mexican border via intense shoot-outs, violent interrogations and merciless assassinations. “Sicario”, after all, is Spanish for “hitman”.
For the most part, both the audience and its proxy, Blunt’s character Kate, are kept in the dark as to what the precise mission is here. Ostensibly it’s to tackle an increasingly belligerent Juaréz-based cartel. But how? Coiled, fuming and taut, Kate asks schlubby DOD guy Matt (Josh Brolin, rolling on flip-flops) what their objective is. “To dramatically overreact,” is his shrugged reply. He tells her to watch and learn, but proves a don’t-show, don’t-tell kind of mentor. Then there’s Matt’s laconic wingman Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), an inscrutable Colombian with a reptilian-cool demeanour, but who wakes screaming to nightmares in Kate’s presence.
First-time screenwriter Taylor Sheridan (aka Sons Of Anarchy’s Deputy Chief Hale) at times allows his characters to slide into cliché-speak (“This is a land of wolves now”), but Blunt and Del Toro transcend this with superbly nuanced performances. Her straight-arrow-sharp determination becomes painfully dulled; he is an exhausted monster, somehow inviting sympathy while noxiously radiating danger.
If there is justice in the world, Sicario will be an all-round Oscar-magnet. Del Toro and Blunt are strong shouts, but so is Villeneuve himself and this should really, finally, be the year that 12-time nominee Roger Deakins wins for cinematography. Through his eye, often peering down from a cloudless sky, tracking the undulating shadow of an under-the-radar jet, the land south of the border becomes a threatening, crater-riven otherworld. Perhaps that’s a deliberate visual metaphor. We are, after all, in a morally alien landscape.
Villeneuve and Deakins revel in the twilight — definitely a deliberate visual metaphor. The entire film has a gorgeously crepuscular quality. Its most resounding gracenote presents us with an apocalyptic sunset. Against it, Delta Force warriors become stark shadows, dipping down and disappearing one by one into a literal underworld: a dead-of-night-dark tunnel that slices clean through the border. An image so powerful it’s impossible to shake.