There’s a devious irony to the imagery in Sicario, a galvanizing drug-war drama from director Denis Villeneuve, with cinematography by Roger Deakins. The movie’s blazing brightness – courtesy of either the Arizona desert or governmental fluorescent lighting – as well as its frequent use of birds-eye view angles, would seem to provide clarity and context, a way of seeing and understanding. But this is a film in which murkiness reigns, moral and otherwise.
Uncertainty exists right from the start, as FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) raids a suburban Arizona home looking for hostages, only to discover something far more disturbing. Her professional handling of that situation draws the attention of shadowy governmental “advisor” Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), who recruits her for a drug-related operation in El Paso, Texas. Next thing she knows, she’s on her way to Juarez, Mexico, with the even more mysterious Alejandro (Benicio del Toro) as part of Graver’s team. A few gunfights and some torture later, and it isn’t long before she begins to question exactly what goal it is they’re trying to achieve.
Sicario throbs with tension, thanks to Villeneuve’s slow-build style of cinema (he favors encroaching camera movements and a patient pace). Despite its somewhat familiar story, there’s hardly a moment in the movie that feels routine. Even the stock image of a plane taking off becomes expressionistic here, as we get that bird’s-eye view of the land below, with a government plane’s silhouette flitting along in the right-hand corner of the screen. That’s apropos, for as we’ll learn, the law may be casting something of a shadow, but it’s the harsh landscape – wild lawlessness – that dominates the frame.
Kate is capable, but also breakable.
Blunt isn’t entirely new to this sort of weaponized material – she more than ably co-starred with Tom Cruise in Edge of Tomorrow – but she takes a different approach to the gunplay here. Like Charlize Theron in this summer’s Mad Max: Fury Road, she isn’t afraid to let vulnerability be part of her character’s makeup. Kate is capable, but also breakable – as is clear in two intense sequences in which she’s overpowered by larger men. What’s truly at stake is not whether Kate can bench press as much as the guys who surround her – and they’re all guys – but if her moral compass can withstand what they throw her way.
As good as Blunt is, my favorite performance in the film belongs to del Toro. Alejandro at first appears to be an ineffectual bureaucrat in a suit – the slumped, rumpled sort at which the actor usually excels. But then, in unexpected moments, he gathers his full frame and employs it as a violent force. The frightening part is that we never quite know when – or towards whom – that violence will be applied. Alejandro represents the moral ambiguity that is Sicario’s true subject, and del Toro lightly carries that weight. He’s long had one of cinema’s most fascinating mugs – it’s as if his playful eyes are resisting the rest of his face’s sagging sadness. I can’t think of a more fitting visage for someone like Alejandro, who is a force of justice and evil at the same time.