The border between the United States and Mexico has been interjected into the national conversation as a literal thing — a line where a wall can be built. But in the new film "Sicario," the border is more conceptual than that, a zone of anxiety and often violent transformation.
A title card at the beginning of the film announces "In Mexico, Sicario means hit man," setting an immediate tone of ominous danger. Directed by Denis Villeneuve from a script by Taylor Sheridan, the film manages to somehow be sleek and sprawling, focused and cagey at the same time, often in the same scene.
The film portrays the so-called war on drugs not as a battle to be won but as an existential minefield, something that sucks in people with even the best of intentions and turns their world inside-out. With a central trio of powerful, deeply rooted performances by Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro and Josh Brolin, the film is both a bracing action picture and a startling examination of a world in which right or wrong have become essentially irrelevant. There is only survival and forward motion.
Kate Macer (Blunt) is an FBI agent assigned to tracking down kidnapping victims of Mexican drug cartels in the American Southwest. Early on it is suggested that she volunteer — she can't be officially assigned, she must volunteer — for an interagency joint task force. She joins in hopes of making a bigger difference and quickly finds out nothing is as she was told it would be.
Matt Graver (Brolin) is a government agent of shadowy provenance, officially an "advisor," yet as a playful provocateur he seems to have vast resources at his disposal and free rein in the field. Alejandro (Del Toro) is introduced first by Graver as a "bird dog" but reveals himself to be much more than that.
Moving freely back and forth between the U.S. and Mexico, the trio are trying to disrupt the flow of money and drugs in hopes of causing higher-ups in the Mexican cartel to make a mistake and reveal themselves.
Sheridan's script seems to purposefully keep Mexico and its people at arm's length, largely an abstraction. A series of scenes involving a Mexican cop and his family feel architectural, there for reasons of structure and a passing consideration rather than organic to the storytelling.
The film is elevated most by its performances. Blunt, who handily stole last year's Tom Cruise action vehicle "Edge of Tomorrow" from its star, again proves herself as one of the most versatile and compelling actresses today. Here she shapes her character as something of a modern-day Clarice Starling from "The Silence of the Lambs," an initiate to a world far removed from the one she trained for yet capable of adapting to its unfamiliar ways.
Though an Oscar-winner for "Traffic," a film to which "Sicario" bears some comparison, Del Toro remains less a conventional star than a transformative actor's actor, and here he brings his full eccentric, soulful, commanding presence. He credibly creates a character who can shoot someone and still seem sympathetic both to that character and the audience.
With a wicked, manic charm, Brolin's character declares his mission to be simply to "create chaos," hoping to disturb the finely honed machinery of the drug trade just enough to cause gears to slip and panicked mistakes to be made. Villenueve's economic storytelling conveys much about the character with a simple pan down to reveal Brolin sitting at a conference table in a soulless government office wearing flip-flops.
The film's most hair-raising set piece occurs when a convoy of SUVs becomes stuck in traffic at the border crossing on its return to the U.S. from a visit to Juarez, moving targets made still. Ratcheted by a tortuous tension and sense that danger is possible on all sides, it is among the best action scenes of the year — and the cars are at a standstill.
Special notice must go to cinematographer Roger Deakins, whose work on Villeneuve's previous film, "Prisoners," counted for one of his 12 Oscar nominations. Here Deakins captures the daybreak/sundown slippage between light and dark, with frequent shots of a sky transitioning from shadowy blue to a tangy orange. In one moment he perfectly frames a character walking into a tunnel backlit against the opening, effectively making a spotlight for a drawn knife that seems to be heading straight for the viewer.
A subsequent shootout seamlessly weaves between night-vision, thermal images and a conventional view, aided immeasurably by editor Joe Walker. The film's score by Jóhann Jóhannsson creates a throbbing, underlying tightness throughout.
By turns thrilling, disorienting and draining, "Sicario" exists in a border zone seemingly of its own devising between the art film and the action movie. This is definitely not a film that pretends to have any answers and suggests it's a struggle to even fully understand what the right questions might be.
Shortly after they first meet, Kate asks Alejandro for details of their assignment. "You're asking me how a watch works. For now, just keep an eye on the time," he responds enigmatically. By the end of the film, she will understand how the system works, in that its dysfunction and conflicting interests is no system at all.
Rated: R for strong violence, grisly images and language
Running time: 2 hours and 1 minute