Denis Villeneuve’s Drug-Cartel Drama Sicario Delivers

Emily Blunt in Sicario. Photo: Richard Foreman, Jr. SMPSP/Courtesy of Lionsgate

Top-billed Emily Blunt in combat apparel stands in the foreground of the poster for Sicario, looking oddly pensive but still very much like the hero of a balls-out military drug-bust thriller. Well, she is and she isn’t. The foreground of the story is murky, oblique, the shadowy aftermath of decisions made somewhere else based on events that have unfolded over decades. The drug busts seem strangely irrelevant. There’s no clear military hierarchy. Blunt’s character, an FBI agent named Kate Macer, isn’t even the title figure, sicario coming from an old Latin word for assassin resurrected by the new Latin American mafia. Denis Villeneuve’s film turns out to be a stupendously unnerving descent into moral chaos, our presumed action hero Alice in Cartel-land.

You could take Sicario as a corrective to Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal’s Zero Dark Thirty, that brilliant, morally reprehensible female-led thriller that boiled down — Bigelow’s subsequent obfuscations notwithstanding — to the idea that going over to the “dark side” was the only way to win the War on Terror. Having had a few more decades to prove itself unwinnable (partly thanks to Americans’ ceaseless drive to be Anywhere But Here), the War on Drugs makes for an even starker prism through which to view the handshakes with the devil that are the running theme of U.S. foreign policy. Working from a script by Taylor Sheridan, Villeneuve puts the emphasis on dead families, dead children. The movie is a diagram of human suffering spread over the whole of the Americas.

Sicario opens in bloody confusion, with a thunderous assault on a compound said to be packed with drug-war hostages. Still shaking from the subsequent horror, Kate is recruited into an elite force overseen by a cryptic agent called Matt (Josh Brolin). To whom does Matt answer? Funny you should ask. It’s what Kate keeps asking, too, along with “What’s the objective of our mission?” She finds herself smack on the Mexican border — in El Paso, the relatively quiet little city from which you can watch parts of nearby Juarez blow up like Beirut in the ’80s. Directed to make noise, call attention to themselves, “shake the tree,” Kate and her team hurtle back and forth across the Bridge of the Americas, apparently breaking domestic and international laws. What the hell are they doing? And who is the man called Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) who sits in planes and armored vehicles in silence, staring at nothing?

As Kate realizes that she’s more a witness than participant, Blunt does more and more with her eyes, her open mouth, her body that starts going one way — its muscles trained to obey — while her mind tries to intervene with a stop, whoa, what the fuck. It’s a beautifully reactive performance, abetted by Daniel Kaluuya as a brotherly FBI compadre. Around her, Villeneuve, the great Expressionist cinematographer Roger Deakins, and the vigorously dissonant composer Jóhann Jóhannsson create a scrambled, alien world in which harsh-lit desert landscapes give way to black tunnels. When Kate descends into one, Jóhannsson comes up with a noise that’s like the Earth giving up a final groan. Before that was what sounded like the keening of lost souls — fuzzed out, leaving the planet for somewhere better.

The Quebec-born Villeneuve hates violence on a level so visceral he mourns his own images. He doesn’t show as much as he did in his 2010 film, Incendies, which was partially set in an unnamed Mideast country much like Lebanon. But every road out of the frame leads to hell. A subplot centers on the young Mexican son of a man who comes and goes, palpably treasuring breakfast with his family while pouring liquor into his coffee, the father’s face inexplicably a mask of dread. In small and large (but rarely sensationalized) sounds and sights, Villeneuve evokes a Mexico that — since overtaking Colombia as the dominant player in Latin American terror — is no country for old or young men or women or children.

The lens of Sicario finally settles on Del Toro, whose sad, heavy eyes don’t prepare us for the swiftness of his brutality. There’s something childlike about Blunt’s Kate, a hint of a family man (and a bad boy) in Brolin’s Matt, but anything naïve and hopeful in Alejandro was incinerated long ago. I have no way of knowing if the alliance at the heart of Sicario has a basis in reality, but history is lousy with examples of the U.S. befriending enemies of our enemies — an improvisatory, opportunistic, tragically shortsighted geometry that has come to be seen as Realpolitik. By the end of the movie, Villeneuve has us knotted up with dread while at the same time unsure what we’re dreading. The failure of this mission would be hard to live with, but its success is the opposite of a design for living.

What keeps Sicario from cynicism is the nature and depth of Villeneuve’s gaze, not childishly wide-eyed but capable still of feeling pain. He’s a terrific director. You know that if his heroine, Alice, gets out of Cartel-land alive, she might spend a few months in an asylum, but she’ll be back, hell-bent on seizing the foreground.

*This article appears in the September 21, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.