About 40 minutes into Sicario, FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) walks into a room full of CIA operatives, US Marshalls, and assorted guns for hire. Her ponytail and lithe figure are immediately out of place amongst the barrel chested, heavily bearded men who are supposedly her coworkers. In addition to the obvious gender outlier, she also becomes an organizational outlier. She and her partner, well-groomed members of the upstanding FBI, are concerned with rules and protocols, while their CIA overseer, played by Josh Brolin, is introduced being deliberately vague, wearing a Hawaiian shirt and flip-flops. The difference between the shadowy areas of the government and the parts exposed to sunlight are further deconstructed in Sicario, Denis Villeneuve’s thriller about the extra-legal vagaries of drug interdiction. The battle between these two is revealed to be not a battle at all. One side is simply operating on a different set of rules.
Opening on Macer leading a raid on an Arizonan drug house, she and her team are shocked to find a brace of bodies sealed into the house’s framing. They are further shocked when an improvised explosive device suddenly explodes in the backyard. This cartel escalation puts Macer in a mood to step things up, and she leaps at the opportunity to go after senior cartel officials when CIA agent Matt Graver (Brolin) presents the chance to her. As minor members of Graver’s extensive team, Macer and her partner Reggie Wayne (Daniel Kaluuya) are left grasping for information and mission parameters, while secretive Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro) seems to be running things, as he takes the lead in interrogations. Baffled by the mission and the legal latitude Graver and Gillick are using, Macer is left to grapple with her growing doubts about the mission, and her desire to stop nibbling around the edges of the drug trade in exchange for a big catch.
Villeneuve is making a name for himself as a devotee of the morality play thriller. His breakout film, Incendies, placed its characters in impossible situations, blossoming out from a brutal civil war. His follow-up, Prisoners, brought torture to small-town America, placing brutal crimes on the scale against the slim possibility of finding an abducted child. Sicario gives the viewer another moral scenario to weigh, and it might be the grayest of Villeneuve’s career. The characters spend a fair amount of time in Ciudad Juarez, and the town is littered with corpses, including bodies strung up from bridges as a show of intimidation. Against that kind of depravity, what are the rules and jurisdiction that Macer is concerned with really worth? Macer is the clichéd lieutenant, demanding the badge and gun of the reckless cop, thrust into the lead and deprived of real authority. The lieutenant always comes around to the reckless cop because, as Homer Simpson would say, the cop gets results, but what if on the way to those results, a shootout erupted in a traffic jam, or children were put at deadly risk? Sicario asks about the limit to getting results, and then proceeds to ask if those results are worth getting in the first place.
Graver and Gillick’s methods ultimately overtake Macer’s protestations, and as they exert more power over her, Sicario shifts to Gillick’s film. A film from Macer’s perspective is unique, while a film about a deadly operative working in the shadows is plentiful. Once Gillick takes over, Sicario becomes significantly less interesting. His vendetta against the Juarez cartel simply isn’t breaking new ground. The climax has nothing to do with her, just as the thrilling intro, which the film never tops, has nothing to do with Gillick. Split between those two perspective, Sicario loses sight of the moral quandary at its center.
The tonal shift doesn’t detract from the onscreen expertise from all sides. This is Villeneuve’s most setpiece-heavy film, and in the several standoffs and stalking, he acquaints himself well with spacing and orientation. These setpieces are all impossibly tense as well. Coupled with expert cinematographer Roger Deakins, Sicario retains a lived-in, gritty look throughout. The environment is used thematically well, as the intense brightness of daylight is just as obscuring as darkest night. Blunt continues to establish herself as a credible lead, following up her excellent turn in Edge of Tomorrow with a similarly strong role. As frustrating as the shift to Gillick is, Del Toro is no slouch, effectively stealing the film. He infuses a world-weariness into the character that turns into cold resolution when the bulletproof vest comes on. He has a habit of invading the personal space of those who he’s trying to intimidate, and it works every time, forcing the viewer back in their seat as well as the intimidate-ee.
Villeneuve hasn’t quite broken through for me into the upper echelon of directors, but he gets closer with Sicario. The difficult choices presented by Taylor Sheridan’s script are a good fit for Villeneuve’s oeuvre, and the tension repeatedly reaches nigh-unbearable levels. Blunt and Del Toro are nicely complemented, though the film turns too much into a commando-style assassination plot. As an examination of the drug war, it remains noncommittal and provides no pat answers, befitting the intractability of the problem. Sicario flirts with greatness and novelty, but it has to settle for high competence. B