If Traffic was the definitive drug cartel movie until now, Sicario has just snapped that title up and walked away with it. Written by Sons of Anarchy‘s Taylor Sheridan after extensive research interviewing Mexican migrants who have lived these stories first hand, Sicario follows bright FBI agent Kate Mercer (Blunt), as she gets recruited onto an inter-agency task force led by the secretive Matt Graver (Brolin) and his mysterious consultant Alejandro (Del Toro), after the successful uncovering of a cartel “death house” in a border town in Arizona–walls and walls of dead bodies, hidden beneath plaster, mutilated and maimed horribly for crimes unimaginable.
With all her FBI training and accolades, Kate thinks she’s ready to take on the drug cartels and bring those responsible for all the death she’s witnessed to justice. Yet from the first moment she is schooled in all the things she doesn’t know; Graver intentionally keeps her in the dark until she realises they’re about to launch an operation in Mexico proper, where they have no jurisdiction, as it’s the only way to rattle the cartel bosses. This goes against everything Kate knows, and she is swept up in the ensuing storm as more death and unthinkable violence erupt around her. All the tactical training and field experience she carries mean nothing in the desert, and as the face-off with the cartels boils to a climax–and Alejandro’s dark past comes to the surface–Kate comes to face the inevitable truth: justice in a world of wolves can be a very subjective thing.
Sicario is pretty much as close to perfect as a movie can get: expertly toeing the line between arthouse and action flick, balancing visual storytelling and symbolism with rich character work and natural (yet finely crafted) dialogue, and featuring some stellar performances from Blunt, Brolin, and Del Toro, it manages to entertain while asking some deeply disconcerting questions, and letting us figure out the answers for ourselves.
Villeneuve’s particular brand of tension-building is a perfect fit for this incredibly taught thriller. Morally complex characters are pushed into dark corners and forced to act (or react) against the magnitude of violence enforced by the cartels, often with equally atrocious acts. The stark desert landscapes that join the US and Mexico frame the bloody conflict and provide the characters with a blank canvas to spray red, and Johan Johansson’s incredible score (a powerful humdrum of sound that you feel in your bones as the tension builds from moment one) draws you into the darkness and keeps you there long after the film is over.
Coming from the creative team behind the massively underrated Prisoners, it’s no surprise that the film is such a masterwork of complexity and violence. With a star-studded cast and a script that oozes tension and the total horror held within the human psyche, Sicario is one of the best films you’ll see this year, and a serious contender for any major award. Don’t be surprised if it absolutely sweeps the Oscars, or at least gets nominations in Best Original Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor (Del Toro), Best Cinematography, and Best Director. Rather, be surprised (and indignant!) if it doesn’t.