Humanity is struggling to breathe in Denis Villeneuve's Sicario, a brutal border thriller where violence and corruption are the languages of choice. The buildup to bloodshed comes slowly, but when gunshots crash through brittle walls, windows and skin, we feel the blunt force trauma. Skylines are both picturesque and menacing, populated equally by clouds and tracer fire. This is a land where wolves flourish.
Muscular and mean, the film examines Mexico's Narco drug war and its spillover into the United States. The gripping opening sequence unfolds calculatingly as an FBI tactical unit led by Kate Mercer (Emily Blunt) raids a literal house of horrors in the suburbs of Arizona. Specs of dust drift through the air immediately before an assault vehicle crashes through a wall. From the beginning, Roger Deakins' potent cinematography focuses on the texture and light of suffocating spaces.
After the aforementioned operation goes explosively south, Matt (Josh Brolin), a smug government operative with secret marching orders recruits Kate to join a clandestine unit tasked with "restoring order" by "creating chaos." The off-the-books outfit also includes a mysterious contractor named Alejandro (Benicio del Toro) who has past experience disrupting the cartel's workflow.
Sicario harbors some darkly comic undertones. "It's going to be a good day," says Brolin's devil of a narrator right before the trio crosses from El Paso into Juarez to collect a high-value target. Flanked by Delta team members, the Mexican police and a squad of military jeeps, the incursion feels like an invasion of another country. Kate's crew sweeps through the deadly town in precise fashion, creating an unnerving city-symphony.
At one point the camera feels organically attached to a truck's machine-gun turret. We see the rampaging drive from the weapon's perspective, feeling every speed bump as the convoy careens through a town where the threat of ambush lies around every corner. Kate remains a passive observer until she's forced not to be.
Non-violence is never an option in Sicario, and in many ways that's what makes the film's vision of governmental subterfuge so scary. Villeneuve's smooth and tactile direction gains our trust, allowing for sequences to build momentum without ever needing a climactic payoff. But as Kate uncovers a web of lies, demanding answers in righteous fashion, things only get more muddled. Alejandro's retort is as lethal as his gunplay: "Nothing will make sense to your American ears."
Sicario fails to clarify its political motivations but instead explores what happens when discourse no longer seems necessary to enact change. Our moral perspective becomes linked to a militarized viewpoint. Aerial shots overlooking pockmarked mountains and deserts create a false sense of serenity that is subverted once Villeneuve cuts to a drone's perspective or that of a Special Forces soldier wearing night vision goggles.
Eventually the mission at Sicario's center becomes clear, but Kate remains steadfast in her denial that such methodology can actually make a difference in the Narco war. This is what separates her from men, such as Alejandro and Matt, who thrive behind the veil of procedure.
Villeneuve's film is all about contradictions. The nasty narrative takes place within a beautiful and lyrical formal vision. An image of shadowy soldiers dipping under the red horizon and out of frame as they traverse down a mountain perfectly encapsulates this notion.
Sicario, which opens on Friday, Sept. 25, ultimately, sides with no one. There are no victors but plenty of walking dead. If the final sequence is any indication, the victims of oppression have learned to live side by side with their suffering. Losses are pre-ordained, so why be surprised when someone you love disappears forever?