Québécois director Denis Villeneuve likes dark places. His 2013 thriller Prisoners was full of cellars and hidden passages. His latest, Sicario, starts in an Arizona ranch house whose boarded-up rooms hold terrible secrets — stacked corpses executed by a drug cartel — and builds toward the discovery of a tunnel used by that same cartel to cross the border. The "heart of darkness" imagery may be heavy-handed — no one will ever accuse Villeneuve of having a light touch — but it's immensely effective in a film noir.
And that's what Sicario (a Mexican term for "hit man") is. While the topics of border strife and the war against narcotraficantes are ripped from the headlines, Villeneuve doesn't aim for a multilayered procedural view à la Steven Soderbergh's Traffic. Instead, with vital assistance from writer Taylor Sheridan and star Emily Blunt, he spins a clever update on the classic noir narrative of the destruction of one good, flawed man who pokes his head unwittingly into a nest of corruption. (Think Chinatown.)
Except that in this case, the good man is a good woman. Blunt plays Kate Macer, leader of the FBI task force that discovers the cartel's grisly cache. With no experience in fighting the drug war, she and her partner (Daniel Kaluuya) are tapped to assist a mysterious Department of Defense "adviser" (Josh Brolin) in an operation that they're told will take down the responsible parties.
As she's flown to El Paso and thence (without warning) to Juarez for a dangerous extraction mission, Kate realizes she's out of her depth. Figuratively and literally, she's merely a passenger. Brolin's sardonic Matt Graver has the driver's seat, navigating with the aid of a still more mysterious Colombian named Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro). Neither man has much concern for civilian safety or the dictates of the Geneva Convention. Both treat Kate with a dapper condescension that shades into menace as she pieces together her actual purpose in their secret war.
The fast-paced script barely sketches these characters, but the actors give them a pulsing life force. Blunt doesn't put on a badass act; from the moment she appears, Kate's expressive face reflects a battle between terror and self-control, with the former gradually gaining the edge. The ever-serene Alejandro is her opposite, but viewers who feel tempted to see him as the film's real hero should think twice — his is the eerie placidity of someone with no boundaries and nothing left to lose.
The movie's action is thrillingly staged, but credit for building tension even in its quiet moments goes to Roger Deakins' cinematography and Jóhann Jóhannsson's ominous score. Chiaroscuro effects reinforce the noir mood, and aerial shots aren't just travelogue; as Kate's plane heads south, its shadow is tellingly dwarfed by the barren landscape. When Kate enters Juarez, shots at street level counterpoint those from her vehicle, reminding us that the erstwhile murder capital of the world isn't just a scarehouse for naïve Americans — it's a place where people live.
Some will fault Sicario for not giving us enough of that across-the-border perspective; the film reminds us only through an undercooked side plot that the drug trade hurts Mexicans, too. (For some of their stories, watch the searing documentary Narco Cultura, which depicts a much deeper slice of daily life in Juarez.)
But Villeneuve doesn't pretend to offer a comprehensive view. Sicario is the story of Kate's awakening to hard truths, among which is the impossibility of distinguishing the heart of darkness from the heartland. The perspective is limited by design — to make us feel as if we, too, are creeping through that tunnel toward a reveal for which we may not have the stomach.
More a well-informed horror film than a current-affairs drama, Sicario is an aesthetic powerhouse that may not deliver the message (or uplift) some Oscar-season viewers are looking for. It's an unforgettable tale of what happens when one good person gazes into the abyss and realizes she's already there.