“Nothing will make sense to your American ears, And you will doubt everything we do. But in the end, you will understand.” So says a character in Denis Villeneuve’s outstanding “Sicario.” These prophetic words haunt both the audience and protagonist until they suddenly crystallize. The film is like a whodunit where instead of a crime, there’s a philosophical status quo.
The hero is Kate (Emily Blunt), an FBI door kicker working on the border. It’s difficult, profoundly nasty work, and she can tell that her efforts have minimal impact. When offered a position on the task force of Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), a government agent with obvious clout, she jumps at the chance, both unsure and unprepared for the nightmare she’s in for.
From Kate’s recruitment, the drug war drama unfolds from her outsider’s perspective. Kate is a tough, capable fighter, but nothing has prepared her for this. The men she joins are more warriors than police officers, numb to brutality and unconcerned with regulations. Always nearby is Alejandro (Benicio del Toro), a mysterious operative whose presence is the thread that connects the characters together.
Someone like Kate brings in common notions of right and wrong that prove vestigial in this environment, where power and results are all that matters. Freed of normal ideas of morality, what happens doesn’t register as righteous or evil, but simply what happens. The players do both what they need to do and want to do. Their part of the drug war on the U.S./Mexico border isn’t immoral, but amoral.
“Sicario” contains the best sequences of an observer’s view of combat since Jeremy Davies observed an assault in Saving Private Ryan. The staccato popping of distant gunfire. The bloodied bodies. The imposing armed men surveying their handiwork. The burning glow of tracer fire painting the landscape. When we do see the violence up close, it’s fast and hits with the unsentimental force of a bullet. Bloody, loud, over as fast as it began.
Villeneuve and cinematographer Roger Deakins imbue “Sicario” with beautiful camera work that renders the desert setting simultaneously desolate and crowded, both vast and cramped. The camera, often lingering at a distance from the action before hammering in closeups, creates an icy distance between the viewer and the action. The result is not to create ambivalence, but unpredictable tension, and it hits levels of suspense few films manage. It seems believable that anything could happen to anyone at any moment, and at times, it does.
Blunt, sporting a perfect American accent and a star’s screen charisma, deftly walks a fine line between capable and outmatched. Brolin is impeccable as Graves, whose casual, laid-back demeanor belies a calculating, effective operator.
But it’s del Toro whose performance permeates the film with dread and tension. His work here is magnetic, a masterclass in emotional restraint while maintaining a towering presence. One could argue that he’s the true protagonist, and that Kate’s perspective is just the most effective way to present him. He’s an enigma. Through minimal dialogue and some decisive actions, del Toro creates a sense of enormous depth, a nebulous man of phenomenal skill and boundless pain. What has happened to him? We learn just enough to understand him, and to understand him is to understand the film’s world.