FBI ’kidnap-response’ expert Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) leads a raid on a suburban compound and makes a discovery so grisly it turns the stomachs of a hardened SWAT team. Rather than a hostage situation, the FBI has crossed paths with a brutal Mexican drug cartel. Following the operation the FBI receives an offer to join a joint task force to bring down the cartel. Kate’s fellow agent Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya) - who joined the FBI following a legal degree - is suspicious of the slick Taskforce commander Matt (Josh Brolin), but Kate’s idealism overrules his arguments.
Matt is accompanied by taciturn Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), a Central American lawyer with an intimate knowledge of the cartels. We know that Matt is not a representative of a regular government agency because he wears flip-flops to a meeting with FBI top brass.
Once she agrees to join the task force, Kate is taken across the border into Mexico to extract an informant. Kept in the dark, and very obviously out of her depth, she is presented with an incomprehensibly brutal world on the fringe zone around the US/Mexican border.
This is a ‘show don’t tell’ movie. Taylor Sheridan’s lean and efficient screenplay gives exposition in terse dialogue, and director Denis Villeneuve gives information in subtle visual details. When the Americans roar through urban Mexico accompanied by a paramilitarised Mexican police force they are forced to pause momentarily. The camera focuses on a wall behind the vehicles festooned with posters featuring photographs of young women. As these gently sway in dust blown up by the rumbling convoy it slowly dawns that these are missing-persons posters. A small detail that blooms into terrible comprehension of the casualties of the drug wars.
This is a great example of a sleek procedural crime film, there is plenty of hardware on display and the tactical efficiency of trained law enforcement and paramilitary forces is lethally demonstrated. Photographed by Roger Deakins, Sicario is a stunning looking film. Deakins’ lens captures the natural beauty of the desert landscape and contrasts it with the ugliness and brutality of ‘civilisation’.
There is a danger with a film like this that technology seduces the filmmaker - the films of Michael Bay, for example, appear to care for little else than hardware. In a parallel storyline following a Mexican police officer and his family Sicario makes a valiant attempt to at least devote a few brushstrokes to the ordinary people who are collateral damage. These are those about whom the main characters either don’t care, or are simply unaware.
Sicario is a thriller, not an action movie. There are set-pieces stomach tightening in their tension, but Villeneuve is more interested in the anticipation and threat of violence than the act itself. When violence occurs, it is over in the blink of an eye. This is not the sort of film where people run around expending clips of ammunition. The combatants are brutally efficient professionals.
Sicario is a holiday in hell, a searing and visceral tour of places you would never, ever want to visit. It is also one of the year's best films.