Everything about “Sicario” is ruthless. The Mexican cartel bosses are ruthless, storing dozens of corpses in their houses and setting traps to blow up unsuspecting FBI agents. Those same FBI agents are ruthless, killing indiscriminately to eliminate any possible threat. And the film itself, directed by Denis Villeneuve (“Prisoners”), is ruthless, providing no happy endings or easy solutions to the ongoing threat of the Mexican drug cartels.
After a rigged shed behind an Arizona drug house kills two agents, a team of special agents is selected to hunt down the men responsible. Emily Blunt (“Edge of Tomorrow”) stars as Kate Macer, an FBI agent selected by Matt Graver (Josh Brolin, “Inherent Vice”) to join the team. Along the way to their first mission in El Paso, Kate meets Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro, “Traffic”), a trained killer who remains stoic yet kind to Kate.
When they land in Juárez, Mexico, however, Kate realizes how unprepared she is for this elite position. In Mexico, the laws normal law enforcement agents must abide by no longer exist. Merciless killing is tolerated, with little concern for collateral damage. Naked corpses hang from overpasses, and one night, Kate watches through binoculars as explosions and gunshots are heard all across the city. Most of “Sicario” maps Kate’s slow realization that she must either adapt to her new surroundings or die.
That character arc can be described in simple terms, but it’s harder to convey exactly how tense the film is. One of the first Juárez scenes is possibly the tensest in the movie, showing a gun battle during a traffic jam at the Bridge of the Americas. Countless innocent bystanders watch in terror, treated as non-factors in the ongoing war between the cartels and the agents who seek some twisted form of justice.
The thrills of “Sicario” aren’t earned exclusively through conventional means, like tense music or kinetic editing (though both Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score and Joe Walker’s editing complement the tone perfectly). Much of the tension is earned through wondering how far the supposed “good guys” will go to take down the cartel. Alejandro is a particularly compelling character; though he seems like a “dangerous rogue with a heart of gold” at the beginning, his true nature is only revealed at the conclusion of the film.
The early thrills and unraveling secrets of “Sicario” may lead some viewers to believe that the movie will build to a stunningly intense climax, but the climax relies more on muted horror than conventional suspense. The film’s daring to upend expectations is also, in a way, its only flaw — Kate, the protagonist, is notably absent during the sequence the film has built toward.
Still, for thematic coherence, the resolution is perfect. The whole film is populated with compelling characters whose backstories inform their arcs without defining them. Emily Blunt is fantastic as a woman forced to adapt to this horrifying new world, and Benicio del Toro is admirably restrained, leaving the viewer to guess his true motivations. Brolin is also fascinating as a sardonic, borderline sadistic agent who has long since found his place in this world. As Alejandro tortures the information out of prisoners, Matt grins chillingly. In some ways, he’s the rare comic relief figure of the film, cracking jokes and sneering everywhere. But in most ways, Matt is just another product of the disturbing society shaped by the Mexican drug trade.
“Sicario” is a thriller, a character study and an indictment of a section of society so frequently exploited for suspenseful action films. Though the film does provide those same thrills in spades, it’s so impactful because it’s willing to go deeper, to be realistic about the impossibility of ending this sickening system. Kate Macer isn’t a badass female action star sent in to prove her male colleagues’ preconceptions wrong and singlehandedly dismantle a criminal empire. She’s one of the countless lives devastated by a system in which the best possible outcome is some semblance of order.