When he was 20, Denis Villeneuve spent a year traveling the world's conflict zones, going from one hot spot to another shooting documentary footage for a Canadian broadcasting company.
Villeneuve came from a small Quebec village on the St. Lawrence River and up to that point in his life had barely left Canada, let alone thrown himself headlong into foreign wars.
"I remember being struck for the first time by how everybody is the same and yet reality looks so different depending on your perspective," the filmmaker recalled. "I came back from that trip knowing I would never know the truth when crossing a border."
Villeneuve, now 47, has built a career out of investigating the force that geography, both physical and moral, can exert on point of view. In 2010's Oscar-nominated "Incendies," he looked at the charged violence of the Middle East from the Christian and Muslim sides. In 2013's "Prisoners" he examined the justifications for torture via a character who walked the line between victim and aggressor.
With "Sicario," about the battle for control of the drug trade on the Mexico-U.S. border, Villeneuve completes the thematic trilogy. When the action-thriller arrives in theaters Sept. 18, it will again demonstrate a filmmaker on morally scorched earth, where claims of good and evil are more alleged than accurate.
Written by the actor-turned-screenwriter Taylor Sheridan, "Sicario" follows the well-intentioned but naive Kate (Emily Blunt), an FBI agent who is recruited by shadowy government operatives, including a supposed U.S. "consultant" (Josh Brolin, evincing a stoner cool) and an even murkier fixer (Benicio del Toro, in full brooding effect). The group is seeking to root out a Mexican drug kingpin, but it soon becomes clear that the target is merely part of a larger game — then it further emerges that even that game has questionable motives and ends.
As it defies genre conventions (a car shootout at the Juarez border checkpoint builds suspense with nothing more than stationary vehicles), "Sicario" also asks whether, when it comes to the drug wars, our notions of right and wrong are as outdated as a Nancy Reagan PSA.
The American agents after all act with extreme ends-justifies-the-means impunity. And while the film (the title translates as "hit man") doesn't go to "Traffic"-like lengths to specifically connect the bloodshed to recreational drug use, U.S. complicity can be felt at every turn.
"This is a problem that directly involves North America because we are clients of those people," Villeneuve said, adding, "I don't know if it's guilt or the fact that the level of violence is so high, but something about the situation makes us not want to think or talk about it."
Sheridan said he wrote the story with the goal of upending notions of a purely evil cartel on the one hand and right-minded Americans trying to stop them on the other.
"I wanted to explore the modern American frontier and what it looks like," he said. "A lot of people call it a cartel movie. But the cartels of course are just a progression of demand. If you remove them all tomorrow, identical entities would pop up in their place."
As they watch "Sicario" — with a budget of just over $30 million, it is an anomaly in a Hollywood that eschews midrange pictures — viewers may also walk away with larger, more dispiriting questions about deadly conflict. Villeneuve has maintained since the film's Cannes premiere that "Sicario" is as much about cycles of violence generally — and their limitations as a problem-solving tool — as it is a specific comment on Mexican cartels. "Sicario" is steeped in killing but neither condemns nor fetishizes violence; the casualness and repetitiveness of the bloodshed stands as its own comment. There are lessons in the film, Villeneuve said, that can apply equally to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, U.S. military incursions in Central Asia and elsewhere.
"When the chaos is never-ending, at some point we have to ask, 'Are we insane?'" he said.
For his next effort, Villeneuve is taking a rather different angle. He's in Montreal shooting "Story of Your Life," a science-fiction adventure that examines what happens when a linguist (Amy Adams) is called upon to learn the language of aliens so she can gauge their level of friendliness. Unlike much of the director's other work, it's a film as much about a desire for connection as it is an expose of division.
Asked about the tonal shift, Villeneuve offered a laugh. "It has been nice," he said, "to be in the light for a change."