When Hollywood decides to take on drug trafficking between the United States and Mexico, the results tend to be pretty good. Among the powerful films that have resulted from the subject are Maria Full of Grace, No Country for Old Men, and, of course, Traffic.
Into that fray steps Sicario, which analyzes the lengths that police agencies go toward managing the drug trade and the uneasy relationship between the “good guys” and “bad guys.” Emily Blunt stars as Kate Macer, an FBI agent tasked with stopping drug dealers in Arizona. When an opportunity comes, courtesy of a nebulous federal agent named Matt (Josh Brolin), to dig deeper into the situation than she ever could on her own, Kate jumps at the chance.
She, along with a shadowy figure named Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), is whisked around to a series of border areas, with an uncertain goal and even more ambiguous police methods. Unable to control what’s going on around her but also unable to resist seeing where it all leads, Kate must merely hold on for an adventure she couldn’t anticipate.
The obfuscation is embodied by the film’s title, which means “hitman” in Spanish. The titular hitman is kept hidden for much of the movie, and when that person is finally revealed, it flips the entire perspective of the film, making you question much of what had come before.
The film, directed by Denis Villeneuve and written by first-time screenwriter Taylor Sheridan, is a no-holds-barred suspense thriller, much like Villeneuve’s previous film, Prisoners. The filmmaker seems to love reveling in moral ambiguity, and there’s plenty of it to be had here. Sudden, shocking violence is another one of his specialties, and he uses it to great effect throughout the film.
Neither does Villeneuve seem to care about providing easy, palatable answers for the audience. The drug trade is a complicated, messy business, and the story doesn’t make any attempt to smooth out those bumps. But the film is richer because of that choice, since sugarcoating things would have been a dishonest approach.
Blunt appears to be hitting her stride as an actress, as she’s impressed in a variety of recent roles, including Looper and Edge of Tomorrow. Kate is the type of nuanced character at which she excels, allowing her to show both her soft and tough sides. Brolin plays cocky well, and he gets plenty of opportunities to do so as Matt. Likewise, Del Toro is great at being mysterious, and roles don’t get much more enigmatic than Alejandro.
Sicario is precisely the type of film we need more of, one that showcases the skills of its actors and offers big entertainment while also taking on a topic that’s of vital importance in the world today.