Grippingly intense, bristling with fine acting from every corner and clear-eyed about what’s really happening along the U.S./Mexican border as the war on drugs nears total failure, “Sicario” is a thought-provoking thriller from Denis Villeneuve.
This is a director known for turning screws very tightly — “Prisoners,” “Incendies” — but what is remarkable about his films is they all occur in “gray” areas. Meaning things are never morally black and white with Villeneuve, always shaded. You sense an antagonist in one movie could be a protagonist in another.
This film, written by actor Taylor Sheridan (“Sons of Anarchy”), is a three-sided look at black-ops operations along the border. The screenplay presents three characters, three points of view, as the action unfolds.
The audience’s surrogate is the film’s heroine, FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt). Her job is to lead kidnap response teams in the Southwest region. She goes by the book in all operations, is suitably idealistic and also relatable for audiences — so what she sees, you see.
She is the film’s witness, in other words, the one tasked with absorbing the behavior of others, sorting out the shifting morality between greater and lesser evils and coming to an understanding of what survival must look like in today’s world.
The second viewpoint belongs to Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), a tough, loquacious, single-minded U.S. government agent who has an unusual resources at his command in terms of men, equipment and intelligence. He’s done with fighting drug cartels “by the book.” He means to play their game better than they do.
The final point of view is that of Alejandro himself. He is deliberately kept a mystery until near the end. Yet you sense, from the moment he comes on screen, he is not only a veteran of the drug wars but a victim. He wears, figuratively speaking, the clothes of an old warrior and the world weariness of a combatant looking for his last battle.
Kate gets drafted at her boss’ suggestion into an elite government task force headed by Matt. She can’t say no because she lost two men on her last operation, through no fault of her own, so this is her chance to pay back the perpetrators — the real ones behind expensive walls in Texas or Mexico, not foot solders who carry out grim orders.
It’s best for the movie’s plot to unfold uncompromised by any lengthy description here. The key issue is that much of the action takes place in Mexico itself, beyond the jurisdiction of the American special ops. These involve an illegal transfer of a prisoner, shootings and deaths that may go unreported by any media, diversionary tactics and a showdown that, while highly unlikely, gives finality to Alejandro’s journey.
This gives no finality to the film itself, however. It remains for Kate to take this all in and to see if Alejandro’s words ring true. Will she understand? Will she decide these guys were right?
For while “Sicario” — the word means “hitman” in Spanish — is a terrific thriller, it is also a morality play. If America is the world’s largest consumer of illegal cocaine, what is our responsibility for the drug wars that have cost over 90,000 Mexican lives so far?
If Mexico is now virtually lawless, what should be the American response: To continue to fight a “war on drugs” that gets us nowhere or rather to “reform” the drug trade, by force, into a more orderly and less violent operation?
Mind you, the film never asks these questions. It’s a tightly told tale of police and military action with a few side pockets of unexpected surprises for its characters. Not to mention a subplot about a Mexican policeman and his soccer-playing son in crime-ridden Juarez that doesn’t intersect the main storyline until near the climax.
Sheridan, a Texas native, claims to have done considerable research, mostly among migrants traveling north, to piece together his story. How accurate it is about any special ops at play along the border I don’t know. It has the ring of truth though.
Villeneuve and the great cameraman Roger Deakins track this story from high overhead — drones? — and in wide shots in the desert and in seemingly innocent American cites that are mirror opposites of the horror of Juarez.
Blunt, becoming something of an action heroine with “Edge of Tomorrow” and now this film, suggests the toughness of an FBI agent (a very fit FBI agent) while clinging to a belief that if one fights for a way of life one should not upend the values of that life.
Brolin’s Matt represents what we’d all love to have — absolute certainty that your course of action is the right, and righteous, one. He all but swaggers as he walks, whether in boots or flip-flops, and carries that dead certainty on his shoulder right next to his gun.
Del Toro’s sleepy-eyed character almost deserves his own film. Only by the movie’s end does the full dimension to his mystery and determination come into focus. His Alejandro is reminiscent of characters created by novelist Graham Greene, burnt-out men who are defeated yet soldier on in existential despair.
Shot in New Mexico, the film has across-the-boards outstanding production values. This is a disturbing film, mind you, that can get under your skin long after the final images fade from the screen.
Opens: September 18, 2015 (Lionsgate)
Production companies: Black Label Media, Thunder Road Pictures
Cast: Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin, Victor Garber, Jon Benthal, Daniel Kaluuya, Jeffrey Donovan, Raoul Trujillo, Julio Cesar Cedrillo, Maximiliano Hernandez
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Screenwriter: Taylor Sheridan
Producers: Basil Iwanyk, Edward L. McDonnell, Molly Smith, Thad Luckinbill, Trent Luckinbill
Executive producers: John H. Starke, EricaLee, Ellen H. Schwartz
Director of photography: Roger Deakins
Production designer: Patrice Vermette
Music: Johann Johannson
Costume designer: Renee April
Editor: Joe Walker
R rating, 121 minutes