ByBenjamin Marlatt, writer at

In the border area standing between the U.S. and Mexico, young, idealist FBI Agent Kate Mercer (Emily Blunt) is enlisted by Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), an “adviser” to the Department of Defense, to aid in the take-down of one of Mexico’s most brutal drug lords. With her career consisting mostly of routine drug busts that barely scratch the surface of the entire conflict, she jumps at the opportunity believing she can finally make a difference in the escalating War on Drugs.

However, when the operation turns out to be more than she bargained for, especially once Matt’s mysterious associate Alejandro Gillick (Benecio Del Toro) enters the picture, it forces Kate to question everything she once believed in.

French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve has a fascination with the dark side of human nature and explored it quite well in both Prisoners and Enemy. Showing no signs of easing up on the cruelty humanity is capable of, his next feature, Sicario (Spanish for “hitman”), tackles America’s ongoing War on Drugs.

Sicario is a brutal and complex thriller that combines grade-A technical expertise and tense setpieces with one of the biggest issues of our time. Like his prior efforts, Villeneuve is not content with black and white when it comes to his approach to the film’s inner-conflicts and ethical compromises. The battle lines between good and evil aren’t so clearly drawn, and in the end, there are no winners here – well, unless you count the drugs. And that’s the sad reality presented in this film. The war is over; drugs have won and the best law enforcement can do is hopefully contain the supply and the violence associated with it.

It’s the feel-good movie of the year.

Like 2013’s Prisoners, Sicario is impeccably crafted from a production standpoint, with DP Roger Deakins, who could make a Teletubbies show look bleak as hell, and composer Johann Johannsson returning from Villeneuve’s 2013 child-abduction thriller. This is by far the most action-oriented film I’ve seen from Villeneuve, and his brutal setpieces, most notably an intense border shootout, are greatly assisted by Deakins’s lens and Johannsson’s bass-heavy score (a far cry from his overly-sentimental score for The Theory of Everything) which ratchet up the mounting sense of dread.

It’s certainly hallowed ground, but consider me on board for Villeneuve’s upcoming Blade Runner sequel.

Emily Blunt has turned in strong work before in Looper and Edge of Tomorrow, but here she gives a career best performance. On paper, Blunt’s character is pretty much the obligatory pure-hearted idealist simply there so the head government operative (Brolin in a finely laid back performance) has someone to explain key plot points to, but Blunt brings so much more to the role. She’s smart enough to pick up on what’s really going on and strong enough to confront it, but she also provides layers of naivety and vulnerability that humanize the agent and make her more relatable to the audience.

In what is easily his strongest performance in years, Benecio Del Toro gives an Oscar-worthy turn as Brolin’s hard-to-peg associate who’s masking his own agenda within the operation. A former man of nobility turned into the very kind of ruthless beings he’s targeting, Del Toro has the meatiest role out of the three, and even though he barely rises above a mutter or whisper he’s still as cold and menacing as they come.

The one misstep that holds it back from contending for top 10 best status is a subplot involving a Juarez cop that feels out of place from the rest of the film. Eventually, he’s connected to the rest of the plot, but he serves as nothing more than a device that doesn’t merit the amount of focus it gets.

Brutal, intense and unrelentingly bleak, Sicario is a lean, mean and technically superb thriller that features strong work from a terrific cast, including a career best turn from Emily Blunt, and gives Villeneuve another strong, slow-burn notch in his impressive career. Some may be turned off by the film’s moral ambiguity, but Denis Villeneuve isn’t interested in pronouncing any easy solutions to the film’s complicated problems, choosing instead to place Taylor Sheridan’s relevant, deeply troubling story deep within a world of grey.

I give Sicario an A- (★★★½).

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