The opening scene of Denis Villeneuve's Sicario, framed by the soundtrack of thumping war drums and ominous fog horn, is one of the more gruesome opening scenes in recent memory. From the first few frames, Villeneuve, known for his gritty realism, makes it clear he will pull no punches when telling the story of the Mexican drug war.
The movie opens on a raid at an abandoned home in a tract housing subdivision in Arizona. FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) and her team are investigating, hoping to find drugs or suspects, but what they find is far more horrifying. What it is they find, or why the raid turns deadly are spoilers I won't disclose.
In the aftermath, Macer is approached by a government liaison introduced to her as Matt (Josh Brolin), who enlists her to be part of a joint task force with his handpicked team. This team includes the enigmatic Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), whose role Macer soon realizes is much, much more than a simple consulting position. And it is Macer and Alejandro's relationship that is the most interesting. Though Blunt is the toplining character, the title of the movie translates to "hitman" in Spanish, and indeed, a hitman is what Alejandro turns out to be.
As the action jumps across the border from the U.S. to Mexico and back again, and the very black-and-white Macer realizes she's in a world with only varying shades of gray and darker gray, her control starts to unravel. She, along with her possibly even more earnest partner, Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya), repeatedly question Matt and Alejandro about the morality of what they're doing, chafing at their roles.
And it's here that the movie's one true weakness shows. The problem is not with Blunt's acting abilities - she is fantastic in the role - but with the way the character is written, herself. Even after admitting that her method of playing it completely by the rules doesn't even begin to scratch the surface of the drug war, Macer refuses to alter her approach or philosophy regarding the job. Soon, Macer's unwillingness to bend her standards becomes less a source of admiration and more one of confusion. One can only admire her for her nobility for so long before realizing she's just horribly naive, and that admiration curdles into impatience. It's entire commendable of Macer to want to keep her humanity in the face of an inhumane war; she may have excellent reasons for this, but they are reasons we're never privy to. Perhaps there is footage on a cutting room floor somewhere that explains her desperate determination to cling to an idealized, unrealistic view, but it is never conveyed in the movie and you get the sense it was a missed opportunity with her as the audience surrogate. Unfortunately, with her as the main character, this isn't a missing piece that's easy to ignore.
As for their parts, Del Toro has always done taciturn and enigmatic well, and he, of course, excels in the role of the self-possessed hitman. As the flippant Matt, Brolin is equally up to the task, letting the hints of a much more ruthless man shine through his easygoing exterior. If Alejandro is the knife in the dark, Matt is the hand that guides it.
Roger Deakins adds to the beautiful grime with his incomparable cinematography. Even when the shots are bloody and violent, visceral and shocking, or pared-down and empty, they are beautiful in their brutality. The minimal realism of his style translates well to the empty deserts of the southwestern U.S. and bleakness of a drug war-ravaged Mexico.
Sicario set the level of intensity from the opening scene, and it delivers all the way through. The movie runs two hours long, but thanks to efficient editing, there is not one wasted scene, and the movie clips along at a rapid pace. Writer Taylor Sheridan gets full credit here for the script he wrote. You are dumped into the action straightaway and as the audience, you get a feel for what it's like for Macer to be whisked from high-stakes encounter to high-stakes encounter before she's even really gotten her balance. It is the definition of "heart-pounding action," thanks in large part to the liberal use of the aforementioned foghorn, a gimmick the movie may have relied on a bit too heavily, but is nonetheless effective at building an atmosphere that reminds you the characters are in mortal danger at virtually every turn. As a gimmick, it works.
As a movie, Sicario works, too. It may not be perfect - it feels like a movie with one major missing piece - but it comes damned close. And for a story that deals with the brutality and despair and horror of the Mexican drug war, close to perfect is good enough.