Sicario review: Emily Blunt faces war on drugs in arresting drama
The FBI take on the Mexican drugs cartels in this intense, gripping and beautifully filmed crime caper, writes Andrew Johnston
After last month's Everest, Sicario is Josh Brolin's second major starring role of the year. And like that mountain-set epic, Denis Villeneuve's crime drama is gripping, intense and visually arresting. There may be no snowstorms or dizzying falls at 29,000 feet, but Sicario will have you on the edge of your seat throughout.
Brolin plays nebulous Department of Defence adviser Matt Graver, who is putting together a team of assorted FBI agents, grizzled sheriffs and ex-military heavies to mount a raid on the drugs cartels operating across the US-Mexico border.
Following a bloody kidnap-response bust in Arizona that results in two dead Feds and the discovery of a houseful of mutilated corpses, ambitious weapons and tactics expert Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) volunteers to join Graver's squad.
The talented, passionate and somewhat naive Kate acts as the audience's way into the story, which is as complex and convoluted as the real-life war on drugs is.
"You're asking how the watch works," Graver's partner Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro) tells Kate when she enquires about the situation they're contending with. "For now, let's just keep an eye on the time."
The script, by actor-turned-screenwriter Taylor Sheridan (Sons of Anarchy), is intelligent but accessible, and the three leads brilliantly essay the differing shades of law enforcement.
Kate's by-the-book idealism initially clashes with Graver's bluff, almost playful approach, but he's nothing compared to the unflinchingly brutal tactics of the quite possibly mentally unhinged Alejandro.
"Nothing will make sense to your American ears," he intones at one point, "and you will doubt everything that we do. But in the end you will understand."
Sicario's masterstroke is to paint everything in shades of grey, so our sympathies flip between Kate's honourable intentions and the arguably more effective handiwork of Graver and co.
The action takes place on the frontline of the drugs war, in the Mexican border towns where gunfire rings out around the clock and the cops seem to be corrupt almost by default.
There's a sub-plot involving one such policeman, family man Silvio (Maximiliano Hernandez), whose presence may be designed to in some way humanise the antagonists. He's certainly way down the scale of evil next to cartel bosses such as Bernardo P Saracino's cocky Manuel Diaz.
Indeed, Sicario's gangsters are almost inhuman, a trope that is reflected in the portrayal of the "good guys". In one striking sequence, their convoy of black SUVs is shot from above, resembling a snake preparing to strike. It's a brilliantly original visual flourish.
Meanwhile, Icelandic composer Johann Johannsson turns in a rumbling, percussive score that practically becomes a character in itself, and cinematographer Roger Deakins captures the sparse, sun-scorched vistas as beautifully as he has shot much of the Coen brothers' work.
At the helm, Villeneuve steers proceedings with a steady hand and a keen eye for detail. He knows when to let the camera linger and when to pull back, notably during a disturbing interrogation scene that cuts away before any violence has taken place, yet remains supremely unsettling.
The French-Canadian director made his international breakthrough with 2013's Prisoners. Last year's Enemy, was less of a hit, but it continued his commitment to intelligent mainstream cinema.
Next up for Villeneuve is the sequel to Blade Runner, and on the evidence of Sicario, he has well earned the prestigious gig.