There are no real victories in Sicario, Denis Villeneuve’s terrifying, captivating, and utterly brilliant War on Drugs tale. Towards the end of the film, we see a series of events that most other films would take as crowning moments of success and glory. Instead, once it’s all over, all we and the characters feel is scared and a bit sick. Playing more like a war movie than a conventional cops vs gangs piece, Sicario makes some bold, but not browbeating, statements about America’s position as World Police, whilst simultaneously easily being the tensest movie of the year. It’s the best work yet by Enemy and Prisoners director Villeneuve, who will next take on the Blade Runner sequel, aided by a great quartet of lead actors and staggeringly good work by master cinematographer Roger Deakins.
We see most of the story through the eyes of Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), an FBI agent recruited for a mysterious role in a major anti-cartel operation that never seems entirely legitimate. Anything that Macer is in the dark about, and that is plenty, so is the audience, and Blunt plays this bewildered moral panic very well. After a raid on a cartel-owned house unearths a truly horrific impromptu mass grave, she jumps on the opportunity offered by smug, flip-flop wearing, probable CIA agent Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) to take down the men ‘really responsible’ for what she found. The world she then finds herself in tests her morality to its core and offers some striking commentary on the Faustian compromises the US has had to make to stand even the smallest chance of damaging the South American drugs trade.
It’s not all politics and ethical quandaries though. After all, ‘in Mexico, Sicario means hitman’, and Villeneuve crafts some of the most intense sequences of action and suspense I’ve seen since last year’s 71. An escort mission to transfer a high value prisoner from Juarez to Phoenix, Arizona is the film’s high point, the American and Mexican agents always feeling terribly vulnerable despite an escort of machine gun-equipped jeeps. The stealth raids that make up much of the third act’s action are almost as good, the infrared night-vision goggles used by Macer’s team turning the landscape positively alien.
Whilst Kate may be the star of Sicario, it’s Benicio del Toro’s Alejandro that steals all these breathless edge-of-your-seat scenes. An enigmatic and nearly robotic killer in the field, Alejandro is not a conventional quiet badass. He wakes shuddering from nightmares and clearly has enough sense to fear his enemies, although not quite to the same extent as they fear him. Rounding out the lead four is Daniel Kaluuya, known best for Black Mirror and Psychoville, enormously bulked up as Kate’s partner Reggie. It would have been easy to just have him around as comic relief, and whilst he does fill that role, he’s also highly competent, and his completely platonic friendship with Kate is believable and refreshing. You genuinely care about all the main characters, vital in a movie where everyone’s safety is in constant doubt.
The visuals and sound are quite simply astonishing. From the ominous, room-shaking rumble of the raid vehicles that start the film, to an aerial shot of the convoy in Juarez making the five cars look like one single organism. You’d be hard pressed to find a more memorable individual cinematic moment in 2015 than a jawdropping shot of Delta Force soldiers dropping into a valley against the backdrop of the setting sun, darkness enveloping them as they slowly approach a manmade underworld. Even as situations devolve into chaos, Deakins maintains total clarity, the unblinking focus on the action heightening tension to levels even Hitchcock might admire. The soundtrack, by Theory of Everything composer Johann Johannsson, only adds to this effect, an unnerving, pulsing score that works in perfect harmony with the rest of the film’s tone and themes.
Sicario makes a few minor missteps; exposition is occasionally clunkily delivered and a couple of moments are rather predictable. But these flaws do very little to detract from the best film of the year so far. It’s not uplifting, no one’s in the right, and the violence is authentically miserable, and yet I can’t wait to see it again. It’s scary and exhilarating in the way that a film dealing with this subject matter should be, anchored by convincing characters and unforgettable visuals.