Who's out there right now consistently dashing off deeper, darker, more trope-twisting scripts than Taylor Sheridan? If the writer-director had ridden into town, dropped just one of his neo-Western wonders — Hell or High Water or Wind River — and then disappeared into the sunset, he'd have left a permanent mark on movie history.
Luckily, he's only getting started. When was the last time you watched the first film Sheridan wrote, 2015's Sicario? I do a dozen times a year. Revenge fests don't get grittier, crazier or more intricate. Unless one's so indisputably superb that the guy who penned it gets to expand it into a trilogy.
Sicario: Day of the Soldado makes zero bones about its function in the triptych. Written by Sheridan and directed by Stefano Sollima ("Gomorra"), this is two solid hours of setup. At the same time, I can't think of another movie in the middle of a three-parter that so satisfyingly serves as both its own story and a stage setter.
Benicio Del Toro and Josh Brolin return as avenging attorney Alejandro and American operative Matt Graver. Before I saw the film, I'll admit, Emily Blunt's no-show caused some concern, but that was alleviated in short order. How often does a drama featuring drug cartels, killer drones and Apache helicopters deep in the heart of Texas also feature Catherine Keener?
The actress plays the sort of jaded black-ops puppet master commonly embodied by, say, Albert Finney, David Strathairn or Brian Cox. She's credible as all get-out, tersely issuing directives to the men under her command and scheming with Matthew Modine's spineless secretary of defense. The mission this time around: Engineer a war between rival Mexican mobs in the hope of quickly putting out of business whichever one has started smuggling terrorists across the border.
Graver is given carte blanche to "get dirty." He begins by recruiting Alejandro. Who better to fuck with the minds of drug barons than someone whose family was massacred by one? And what more fitting way to get the mind games going than by messing with that very drug baron's family? While making it look like the work of an enemy outfit, natch.
Alejandro is not the obvious choice for an emblem of tender compassion. The character is so comfortable killing, he makes Jason Bourne look like Gandhi. Sheridan rarely does the obvious, though. The film finds Alejandro first joining forces with Graver to kidnap his nemesis' teenage daughter (Isabela Moner) and then, following an unexpected twist, protecting her from him.
It's complicated. Suffice it to say the U.S. government handles things in Mexico almost as well as it handled things in Afghanistan and Iraq. And that, if I'm any judge of foreshadowing, the last person's shoes you'll want to be in when part three rolls around are Keener's.
Del Toro, as always, is magnificent. Don't buy the rap Sollima's direction has gotten from some reviewers as less finessed than Denis Villeneuve's on the original. He does just fine. Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski transforms the rocky endlessness of the Mexican desert into a vision of hell on Earth. Hildur Gudnadóttir's foreboding score is finely tuned to the brutal business in Sheridan's freakishly prescient script.
Immigrants seeking a better life and crossing the border to find only legal trouble, a president who says one stupid thing and does another, children wrenched from parents — it's all here. When was the last time you watched a movie about America declaring war on cartels and came away unsure which were the bad guys?