Somewhere between the Wild West and Iraq lies Juarez, Mexico.
A brightly colored urban sprawl with a population of just over 1.3 million, in 2008 its murder rate was the highest in the world: 130 per 100,000. According to Sicario, the latest film from director Denis Villeneuve, it’s a city where mutilated corpses hang from overpasses, a warning from the cartels.
It’s in this environment that FBI agent Kate Mercer (Emily Blunt) finds herself, part of a task force of murky jurisdiction, a soldier in the war on drugs – emphasis on “war”. Drugs, in fact, barely seem to enter into it. Along with her partner Reggie (fellow Brit, Daniel Kaluuya), Kate finds herself seconded to a unit under the control of the smirking, sandal-wearing Matt Garver (Josh Brolin). He’s assisted by Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), a former prosecutor with a haunted look about him.
Set in a world where bearded Delta Force veterans rub shoulders with US Marshalls dressed for the rodeo, and corpses are walled up as far north as Phoenix, the film uses the narrow lens of an action thriller to pose the question of where you, in the quest for order, you draw the (border)line.
Blunt’s steely, mistrustful protagonist is perfectly complimented by Alejandro’s quiet certainty in their cause. With that sense of weary reluctance, Del Toro can turn a trip to the water-cooler into an existential journey. As with Brolin – whose performance has shades of Det. Bigfoot in Inherent Vice – this is very much his metier. Meanwhile, Kaluuya, best known as a TV comic actor, brings a humorous balefulness to the oft-side-lined Reggie.
Together they’re out to bring down a mysterious drug lord, Fausto Alarcon (Julio Cedillo), whose death Alejandro claims will inoculate the region against future violence. Kate’s boss (a put-upon Victor Garber) assures her of the operation’s legality, but its clear there’s a hidden agenda at play.
A sort of single-strand Traffic, Taylor Sheridan’s script focuses on Kate’s experiences in the field, from a tense prisoner transport through a gridlocked border crossing – Burn Notice’s Jeffrey Donovan featuring as a geeky, mustachioed special agent – to a Zero Dark Thirty-esque night-time raid filtered through the green and white lenses of night and heat vision.
Sicario‘s use of night vision also brings back memories of Clarice Starling venturing into the killer’s lair in Silence of the Lambs, only with Kate’s complicity as arguably a more pressing factor than any of the unseen tunnel-dwellers. The film also has a darkly casual relationship with torture, with Alejandro breaking out a brutal-looking wet willy-type move on a would-be assassin.
There are periodic check-ins, however, with family man Silvio (Maximiliano Hernandez) – the assault rifle propped up against a chest of drawers augurs trouble. This is a world where danger can come from any direction.
The type of film that Michael Mann might once have directed, Sicario combines moral and legal murkiness with Roger Deakins’ searingly bright cinematography. The contrast between the crystal lighting and black uniforms provides an almost film noir feel to several scenes. Less lurid than The Counsellor, less poetic than No Country for Old Men, Sicario‘s ambiguity is utterly compelling; even if never quite coheres into absolute greatness.