The billion-dollar drug trade along the U.S.-Mexico border is so bloody and lawless, the line between right and wrong has become impossibly blurred.
Such is the dilemma in "Sicario," a grisly, disturbing portrait of the malignance and corruption inherent in the war on drugs.
Troubling, sad and deeply compelling, this film succeeds on every level: story, performance, music and photography. But the subject and perspective are grim.
In his debut screenplay, Taylor Sheridan (best known for his recurring role on "Sons of Anarchy") explores the complicated legal and moral territory tread by officials on both sides of the border. A Texas native, he visited northern Mexico often as a kid and wanted to examine the anarchic violence that now reigned there. He found a rocky landscape where even the most righteous can find themselves doing wrong.
Director Denis Villeneuve skillfully brings Sheridan's story to life, setting finely tuned performances to a cacophonous soundtrack under Roger Deakins' masterful lens to create a searing and timely thriller.
Kate (Emily Blunt) is a by-the-books FBI agent invited to join a covert operation after discovering a house full of corpses owned by a Mexican drug cartel. On board the secret mission, she meets cocky government agent Matt (Josh Brolin) and mysterious operative Alejandro (Benicio del Toro), both of whom willingly bend the law as their needs dictate.
Told she'll be traveling to El Paso, Texas, Kate is whisked into Juarez, Mexico, the drug cartels' blood-spattered battleground, where headless bodies hang from bridges and gunfire rattles as background noise. She's hoping to arrest those responsible for the murders of the people in that house, but Alejandro and Matt have bigger plans: They want the cartel kingpin, and they're not trying to arrest him.
Complicating things further, Kate learns that Alejandro doesn't represent the U.S. government, but works for the Colombian drug cartels, which stand to benefit from a shutdown in Mexico's business. He is vengeful and focused, cryptic and poetic. To him, finding the cartel boss "would be like discovering a vaccine" to the addiction, death and corruption drugs cause.
Curiosity and duty obligate Kate to continue the mission, to see how deep the trouble goes. She desperately clings to her notions of justice as order unravels around her.
Blunt and Del Toro each act with their eyes, which is perfect here. Hers alternately convey interest, anxiety and determination. His half-mast glance says Alejandro has seen more than he wanted to. As the story progresses, Alejandro's personal connection to the cartels becomes more clear, blurring the shades of gray even more.
Deakins' breathtaking photography is all about darkness and light and the space between the two, a perfect visual expression of the story's theme. Dust in a beam of light somehow bodes ominously. The shadow of a plane, tiny against Mexico's vast desert, speaks to the scope of the war on drugs. At times, the audience sees through grainy security cameras and thermal-imaging goggles. After 11 nominations, let this be the film that finally brings Deakins his Oscar.
The sense of doom in "Sicario" also comes through in Johann Johannsson's foreboding score, which goes from industrial grating to sounding like a fog horn with bad intentions.
Villeneuve has crafted a compelling, unflinching look at the deadly and complicated war on drugs sure to challenge even the most straight-edged and law-abiding viewers, showing that what's right and wrong isn't always so clear.
The director will take on that theme again in his next film, the sequel to "Blade Runner." ''Sicario" says he's ready.
"Sicario," a Lionsgate release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for "for strong violence, grisly images, and language." Running time: 121 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.
MPAA Definition of R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
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