Director: Denis Villeneuve
Stars: Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, Benicio Del Toro
Duration: 121 mins
Class: 15
KRS Releasing Ltd

The stereotypical way some movies depict Mexico as a lawless place, rife with corruption and run by ruthless criminals is almost risible. Granted, the US-Mexican border is often in the news for its notoriety as a hotbed for drug trafficking, people smuggling, gun-running and other heinous crimes. It is a place that keeps the American authorities busy, with many government agencies fighting a war that seems to be interminable.

It is easy to fall into the trap of depicting the gang lords as sneering one-dimensional characters and the lawmen after them as cardboard heroes. Yet, Sicario brings with it a gritty and grimy sense of authenticity, underpinned by an exceptional script from Taylor Sheridan, a Texan who travelled often to Mexico as a child, and watched with dismay as the country bordering his home state changed so radically as he grew up.

Sheridan has crafted a tightly-woven story, peopled by complex characters, all of whom are enveloped in a haze of murky morality. We are introduced to Arizona FBI agent and kidnap-response-team leader Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), a brilliant officer who does everything by the book. After Macer and her team make a sickening and very gruesome discovery at the abandoned compound of a drug trafficking suspect, Macer is asked to join a task force that is heading into Mexico to carry out a covert mission. She volunteers readily, keen to bring the perpetrators to justice.

Yet, Macer’s innate sense of honour and duty are shaken to the core on the realisation that the leaders of the task force – the enigmatic Alejandro (Benicio del Toro) and special agent Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) do not exactly follow protocol when carrying out their investigations.

Macer gets caught up in a crossfire – both literally and metaphorically – as the lines between legal and unlawful behaviour are blurred beyond recognition.

A tightly-woven story, peopled by complex characters

Sicario – meaning ‘hitman’ in Spanish – is a film powered by the afore-mentioned script and the taut direction by Denis Villeneuve. Villeneuve is a French-Canadian director unafraid of presenting his audiences with unsolvable moral dilemmas (as evidenced by his excellent drama Prisoners) and in Sheridan’s screenplay he has found some grim moral quandaries for his characters to struggle through, most notably Blunt’s character – through whose eyes and ears we witness the story unfold.

Like her, we come to realise with alarming dismay that the agents purportedly on the side of good take ethically-questionable decisions with remarkable ease and at times pull their triggers with terrifying callousness, until the situation explodes in a chain reaction of violence and we no longer know who the good guys are.

The action is slick. the excitement palpable and the protagonists’ relentless quest to get the bad guys whatever the cost makes for unnerving viewing, as the reality of this dark and dangerous corner of the world is laid starkly bare. The story unfolds against a backdrop of dramatic desert landscapes, the stark ambience perfectly captured by Villeneuve’s director of photography Roger Deakins.

Blunt is an actress who has come a long way and displayed astonishing range since she came to audiences’ notice with her comic turn in The Devil Wears Prada almost 10 years ago. A variety of successful roles followed, and it was in her turn last year in blockbuster Edge of Tomorrow that allowed her to display her remarkable action chops; abilities the actor repeats here impressively, as she adds the necessary dramatic edge required to turn the role into one that is deep, equally strong and vulnerable, and wholly resonant. Blunt adds many shades to Macer – her conflicting emotions evident as she is faced with choices that go against her nature.

Del Toro’s Alejandro is imposing, enigmatic and fascinating and he really digs his teeth into the role of a man whose decency has been smothered by the tragedies he has faced in life.

Brolin’s flip-flop wearing, deceptively good-natured, yet tough-talking Graver is the experienced face of the authorities’ no-holds-barred attitude towards the war on drugs. It’s an attitude built on the philosophy that the end justifies the means, whatever those means are. Sicario is not interested in presenting us with a tidy ending… for in these circumstances, such a thing is impossible.