CANNES – In 2001 Benicio Del Toro won an Oscar for his portrayal of a Mexican police officer attempting to take down the drug cartels in Steven Soderbergh”s “Traffic.” Fourteen years later he”s starring in another film about North America”s “drug war,” Denis Villeneuve”s “Sicario,” and the picture makes the disheartening argument that things may have actually gotten worse.
The film begins during an FBI operation in Phoenix, Arizona where veteran agent Kate Macy (a superb Emily Blunt) is leading a SWAT team to take down a hostage situation. They soon discover a home with no hostages to be found but over 20 dead bodies hidden within its walls, all victims of a Mexican drug cartel. Kate is shaken by the murders enough that she reluctantly signs on to be the FBI liaison for what she”s told is a DEA and Dept. of Justice task force. This group is led by the ever-jovial Matt (Josh Brolin), who Kate is immediately wary of.
Despite her prodding, Matt continues to sidestep who he actually works for and Kate becomes more skeptical upon the arrival of his colleague, Alejandro (Del Toro). She eventually learns that Alejandro is Mexican and has years of experience battling the cartels, but no one will tell her his true purpose on the task force.
Before Kate has a moment to process any of this the trio is off to El Paso, Texas to facilitate the extradition of a drug lord, currently in Juarez across the border, and into U.S. custody. The mission ends up in an illegal and deadly firefight provoked by Matt, Alejandro, the U.S. Marshals and military security forces. This leaves Kate wondering what exactly she”s gotten into. Pleading with her boss (Victor Garber) for assistance brings even more frustration as he informs her that right or wrong, “publicly elected officials” have now authorized this sort of behavior. As things turn darker Kate has to decide how far she”ll let her new colleagues go before deciding they've crossed a line she can't live with.
While Villeneuve expertly stages the film”s action elements with a patient eye that is rarely seen in commercial cinema, screenwriter Tayler Sheridan has no intention of ignoring the political realities at play. Even if only half of what transpires in the film is true, it”s an indictment against every strategy the U.S. and Mexico have put forth this century. The killings in Juarez were real and the violence committed between the warring cartels has reached horrific levels (though as of late there has been a significant period of relative peace).
At one point, Brolin”s character insists that if “20% of the population” is going to insist on taking cocaine that it might be safer for America if there was just one major power again, such as the infamous Medellín cartel. The concept that “Sicario” could be inspired by anyone in the U.S. government thinking that is astounding, but it”s a powerful statement because that logic sounds exactly like something the FBI, CIA or Department of Justice might secretly push for.
“Sicario” starts and ends with Blunt”s impassioned performance (and she's spectacular in her final scene), but it”s Del Toro who is the real standout. Alejandro is obviously the Sicario the film”s title refers to (English translation: hitman) and Del Toro finds a way to make him the most intimidating figure in a movie chock-full of strong personalities. Alejandro may not wear his broken heart on his sleeve, but Del Toro lets it simmer below the surface. The performance is an impressive return to form for an actor who hasn”t appeared to be this invested in a role since Soderbergh”s “Che.”
Brolin”s natural charisma comes in handy playing Matt, but it would be a mistake to assume his character”s cavalier attitude is superficial. Matt has simply seen the worst of the world and if he can”t find the humor in even the darkest of situations he won”t be able function. Brolin, like Del Toro, could have strayed into over-the-top territory here, but he gives Matt an authenticity that helps make the movie feel all too real.
Villeneuve reunites with a number of his “Prisoners” collaborators including director of photography Roger Deakins, composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, costume designer Renée April and production designer Patrice Vermette on the film. Deakins once again proves he stands alone amongst his contemporaries in shooting the southwest. His widescreen compositions, often positioned from an imaginary satellite perch, particularly emphasize the emptiness that buffers El Paso and Juarez. The confidence Deakins and Villeneuve have in each other manifests itself in one key sequence shot almost entirely in night vision. These scenes could have easily devolved into cliché, but instead Deakins is able to use the style to accentuate the horror of Matt and Alejandro”s intentions.
Jóhannsson”s score here is even more minimalist than in “Prisoners.” It”s a stylistic cousin to Hans Zimmer”s “Inception” score and Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans”s compositions for another Villeneue movie, “Enemy.” It”s an important contribution to the tension Villeneuve is building during the law enforcement operations.
The creative imprint Villeneuve has put on “Sicario” is becoming increasingly recognizable. This is a director who relishes a slow build, who wants you to wait and, frankly, he may test your patience in doing so. But if you can appreciate the artful build-up long enough, you will be rewarded with a pop and crackle that sticks with you long after the credits have rolled.
“Sicario” opens in limited release on Sept. 18.