“Nothing will make sense to your American ears,” explains the mysterious Alejandro (Benicio del Toro) to Phoenix based FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt). “And you will doubt everything you do,” he adds. “But in the end, you will understand.”
In the new, taut thriller Sicario from director Denis Villeneuve, Kate is enlisted by a special government task force to assist in the tracking of an unknown drug lord, only she’s not quite sure what’s going on or why she’s required. Del Toro’s Alejandro is on the team, though what he’s doing in the task force is also unknown. When he tells Kate how nothing will make sense, he’s not only talking to her, the character could easily be talking to us; everything that happens, everything we witness is viewed through Kate’s eyes, and she’s not happy with what she’s seeing.
When the film opens we’re in the desert town of Chandler, Arizona, a heavily armed SWAT team lead by FBI field agent Kate bursts into a newly built residence in the suburbs. The house is thought to be a hiding place for someone with a connection to the Mexican drug cartel. When the agents burst in, they’re met with gunfire, but the resistance is minimal; just two men guarding the building in an otherwise empty looking structure. It’s what’s discovered hidden in the drywall that shocks; two dead bodies wrapped in blood-stained plastic. The agents tear at more of the drywalls. More dead bodies. Before the scene is over, Kate’s team will have uncovered more than thirty-five rotting corpses buried standing up in the walls, all covered in plastic and all seemingly brutally beaten. It’s a grisly beginning and it sets the tone for what’s to come.
Kate is very much a by-the-book agent. She wants things to be above-board and correct and certainly all actions must be within the law. That was her training and that’s how she is. “I want to follow some semblance of procedure,” she will later tell her local Phoenix based boss, Jennings (Victor Garber) when she feels things are developing into something murkier than she’s used to.
Because of that Chandler raid and the impressive manner with which Kate handled herself, a task force lead by government agent Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) asks Kate if she wants to volunteer for a special mission that will take her to the border. It’s not altogether clear what the mission is or what will be required of Kate, but Graver wants her along. When Kate asks if the mission aids in getting the guy responsible for the dead bodies in the Chandler home, Graver tells her, yes. “Then I volunteer,” she says.
The title Sicario is a Mexican word for hitman. The sicario here is del Toro’s character. Alejandro is that quiet but dangerous looking guy who appears calm, says little, sits in the corner but is clearly wracked with torment. The reason why he’s on the American team is unknown to Kate, and Alejandro is saying nothing, but there is a reason and it’ll become clear in the final stages. When Kate casually asks the man what he knows about their mission and who is this drug lord they’re after, Alejandro responds that by asking him what he knows is like asking a clock how it works. “Just take note of the time,” he says. No one is telling Kate anything.
Through long, quiet, angst-filled passages as agents tread quietly and carefully, backed by an atmospheric pulsating and doom-laden soundtrack by Johann Johannsson, Sicario plants you firmly and uncomfortably on edge. These moments are stretched to such a fear inducing level that by the time gunfire begins it’s almost a relief. But when it comes it’s swift, brutal and alarmingly shocking. A shootout between government agents and cartel gunmen at the border comes so swiftly after such a lengthy buildup, there’s hardly time to catch your breath. And even though Kate is dragged into the scenario and forced to fire, the whole operation and what her team mates are doing is clearly wrong. “What we did was illegal,” Kate angrily declares. Brolin’s Graver is more casual. “It won’t even make the papers in El Paso,” he remarks with a dismissive, unconcerned tone.
There are several things happening with Sicario. For Kate, it’s a mystery thriller as she tries to come to terms with what’s she’s doing and why she’s there; for del Toro’s character it’s a story of revenge and how he uses the American task force to achieve it; and for director Villeneuve it’s a character study of those with unclear morals on both sides of the fence and the consequences that follow. The fade out seen from the perspective of concerned though helpless mothers south of the border watching their children play soccer while distant daytime gunfire erupts is an indication of what the director is trying to achieve. “We’re not even scratching the surface,” Kate tells her FBI partner (Daniel Kaluuya) as the never-ending fight continues.
Sicario works on all levels. Handsomely shot by cinematographer Roger Deakins, the three leads, Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin and Benicio del Toro thoroughly convince. Their well defined character traits, their actions and their comments only make what’s happening feel all the more real. In fact, as seen through Kate’s somewhat naïve eyes, everything starts taking on the form of something quite frightening. Plus, the realization that what she and the task force are doing is merely a footnote in the on-going border war of drug smuggling makes the setting all the more unsettling and frustrating.
And even though del Toro’s hitman is saying little, when he talks, even in vague, ambiguous terms, he’s still putting things into perspective. When Kate, disturbed by the unorthodox methods the so-called good guys are using, asks the sicario how important the objective of finding this drug lord really is, Alejandro tells her, “To find him is to find a vaccine.” He then leans into her. “Can you understand that?”
MPAA Rating: R Length: 120 minutes Overall Rating: 9 (out of 10)