Idealistic FBI Agent Kate Mercer (Emily Blunt) is recruited by a government official (Josh Brolin) and his mysterious partner (Benicio del Toro) to join an inter-agency task force tasked with tracking down an unspecified drug lord. Persuaded by the argument that her street-level successes aren’t having any real effect, Kate volunteers for the assignment.
There’s an undeniable, visceral power to the film and, as you’d expect, strong performances from the leads, especially Blunt and del Toro – although awards talk for the latter seems a bit excessive. It’s a muscular, linear narrative which sees Brolin’s Agent Graver and del Toro’s Alejandro Gallick drag Agent Mercer along in their wake as they ruthlessly pursue their unspoken objective. They share information with her (and the audience) on a need to know basis only, and make no mistake: they will decide what she needs to know, as and when it suits them to manipulate and control events to their own ends.
Director Denis Villeneuve is unflinching in showing the devastation the cartel wars have inflicted on both sides of the border, on both the societal and intimate levels. He wants us to see and understand the issues he is raising; the deprivation and despair forced upon people to continue to live in the shadow of such brutality and corruption. There’s a subplot regarding a Mexican policeman, played by Maximiliano Hernández (possibly more familiar to viewers as S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Sitwell from the MCU) whose role in proceedings becomes horribly apparent as the film nears its brutal conclusion and it’s an unsubtle reinforcement of the message that “Sicario” is a film where every character ends up damaged and morally compromised by their actions. For Kate especially, it’s a harsh education in the incontrovertible truth of the aphorism: ‘inter arma enim silent leges’ – in time of war, the law falls silent.
And yet, despite the barbarity and injustice of the subject matter and the committed performances from the cast, the film feels cold; clinical and oddly sterile. There’s a detachment to proceedings, aided and abetted by veteran Roger Deakin’s admittedly stunning cinematography – especially in the frequent use of distant arial shots and drone footage, which kept the proceedings on screen from really engaging with me. Through a jaundiced yellow lens filter, the scenes play out their bleak cruelty but it only registers in a dispassionate, almost abstract way. Rather than enhancing the authenticity of the experience, it anaesthetises against the greater themes at play and, in the end, neither the script nor Villeneuve seems to have an overriding point to make apart from how awful and futile everything is. In a meta-textual echo of the film itself, Emily Blunt’s inclusion – as brilliant as her performance is – feels like a narrative fig leaf, a way to glamorise a stark and uncompromising story of the war on drugs which might not have had enough star power with Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Torro to stir up the box office it needed to.
“Sicario” is a daring, fiercely bleak and serious thriller. It’ll give you plenty to think about, but it may not make you feel all that much.