"Director Denis Villeneuve... [is] the real deal, a filmmaker who is stylish but not flashy, intelligent but not didactic, emotionally attuned but not manipulative."
In the cold-blooded and diamond-hard narco-drama Sicario, the war on drugs isn't a battle so much as a quagmire; a bloody mess of uneasy alliances and necessary-evil compromises.
The film draws the viewer in with the initial lure of a procedural that traverses the border between America and Mexico, with a tough, righteous heroine dropped into the middle of a skirmish that lays waste to bodies and souls. But it soon becomes clear that the usual rules don't apply.
After a raid led by FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) reveals that the walls of a suburban house linked to a major Mexican drug cartel are lined with corpses, Macer catches the eye of a taskforce headed by Matt Graver (Josh Brolin, using his crocodile smile and all-American affability to great effect), who sidesteps or ignores questions about his official title, and Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), whose background and motivations are even more mysterious.
Graver claims the taskforce is looking to disrupt the cartel's chain of command but to Macer its objective still seems sketchy and its methods even more so. And while almost everyone involved may believe the ends justify the means, the means used by Graver and Alejandro don't seem too far removed from the tactics employed by the enemy.
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Director Denis Villeneuve displayed a real affinity for making bleak, confronting material compelling with the Hugh Jackman-Jake Gyllenhaal thriller Prisoners, but Sicario - the title is a Mexican term for 'hitman', which hints at the true focus of the film - proves he's the real deal, a filmmaker who is stylish but not flashy, intelligent but not didactic, emotionally attuned but not manipulative.
Blunt is an ideal audience surrogate, smart and strong but unaware of just how deep and twisted this rabbit hole she's entering will get, but Del Toro, somehow speaking volumes despite his character's inscrutability, is Sicario's dark, bruised heart - the tremendous core of a very fine film.