The films of Dennis Villeneuve are not for the faint of heart. His directorial debut, 2011’s Best Foreign Film nominee Incendies, dealt with atrocities of war and unspeakable suffering. His follow-up, Prisoners, is a child abduction epic that refuses to bat an eye even when things get grisly, and last year’s Enemy provided a cryptic puzzler about identity and self. But despite their consistent level of intensity, the thing that truly ties all his pictures together thematically is their exploration of how far a person will go to find the truth. His protagonists, always less than self-assured as their journey begins, can’t help but become so engrossed in the narrative’s central mystery that the world around them begins to fade away, taking the character’s very soul along with it. Sicario marks his third feature in as many years, and asks Emily Blunt to look down into that same dark, infinite abyss where all of his lead actors have eventually found themselves staring. Young as his career may be, there’s little use in denying that Villeneuve is the modern day poet laureate of the Rabbit Hole.
Blunt stars as Kate Macer, an FBI Special Weapons and Tactics officer with a reputation for never batting an eye, even when things get gruesome and/or violent in the bleached-out Arizona desert she calls home. Her proficiency in even the most horrific of events catches the attention of Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), a Department of Defense adviser (by way of snake oil salesman) who wants to recruit Macer into help bring down a higher-up in the ever-escalating drug war taking place on the border between Texas and Mexico. She agrees despite receiving minimal intel on just what the mission will come to involve, and is further perturbed by the presence of Alejandro (Benicio del Toro), a weathered warrior who serves as Graver's partner despite a lack of any real professional title. And down the war-torn, savagery-abiding Rabbit Hole they go.
The less you know about Sicario going into it, the better, but I will say this; Villeneuve wastes no time in ratcheting up the tension. These are two of the most intense consecutive hours of filmmaking in recent memory, and while the story it tells undoubtably takes place in the realm of reality, the merciless tension and expert craft involved relay the tale as a fever dream, or terrifying hallucination. Cinematographer Roger Deakins (again at the top of his game, because when isn't he?) undulates between unnerving close-ups and uncompromising explosions of color. His camera fashions the world as painter's canvases do; with emotions and sensory overload working together to create a space that is at once recognizable, but also captivatingly surreal. Composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, Villeneuve's previous collaborator on Prisoners, is also responsible for the light sweat you feel in your palms from first frame to last, trading out his normative eerie beauty for something raw, primal, and foreboding.
As most great filmmakers in history would likely attest, much of Villeneuve's success comes from surrounding himself with talented individuals, and while the last paragraph sings the praises of those involved behind the camera, those in front of it are performing just as brilliantly. The obvious accolades go to del Toro by simple virtue of having the meatiest role, and between Traffic, Escobar: Paradise Lost, and this, the thespian has clearly established himself as the most important actor in American cinema's depiction of The War on Drugs, having now played a character stationed at nearly every side of the fight. For my money though, the film's stand-out supporting turn is contributed by Brolin, an actor most familiar as a stoic sort rather than the smiling sleaze he inhabits so naturally here. His performance would almost make you sick if it weren't so devilishly delicious. Then there's Blunt, who, despite being the film's avatar for the audience, has the least involvement in the events on screen, and yet still manages to be the stand-out. Those who loved her violent, futuristic Joan of Arc in last year's Edge of Tomorrow would be wise to curb their expectations. She's certainly still a badass, but is subject to a tremendous amount of abuse, both physical and emotional, from which she suffers deeply. She's no slouch when it comes to dialogue delivery, but it's what her face does in moments of silence and intent observation that make her a likely Best Actress nominee at this year's Oscars.
If you're looking for a review that offers more concrete information and elaborate description of Sicario's plot and the arguments made during its runtime, you'll have to click elsewhere. If it's not perfectly obvious by now, I was blown away by this film, and out of respect, my write-up will be free of any spoilers, or hints that might have you resolve the movie's twist before it arrives. And yes, I did just give away that there is a twist; the movie offers up that information on a silver platter, del Toro even saying to Blunt in the early goings, "Your American ears won't understand, your eyes will see things that make no sense, but in the end, you'll understand." This is certainly true of Kate Macer, who is shown the light by Taylor Sheridan's twisty, unpredictable script, but perhaps more so by the awe-inspiring talent of her director. It's difficult to put a finger on exactly how Villeneuve elevates this film to the lofty tier where it resides simply because every single aspect is brought to life with such mesmerizing aplomb. Dennis Villeneuve is one of the finest filmmakers currently at work, and Sicario may very well be his best work to date. If gore, intensity, or pessimism are deal-breakers for you, I'd pass on this. For literally anyone else, this is must see cinema. Go watch it on the biggest screen you can find.