Denis Villeneuve’s “Sicario” is a tale wrought in blood. Not for the squeamish or the faint of heart, the film follows Kate Macer (played by Emily Blunt), a hardened FBI agent hand-selected to work on an elite task force combating drug trafficking into the United States. In “Sicario,” Villeneuve has offered his audience an elegantly fashioned investigation of truth and justice.
Kate’s life path, as well as her understanding of morality, is challenged when she meets Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), a government agent who hires her for a special assignment to investigate Mexico’s Sonora Cartel. On her first day working with Graver, Kate is introduced to Alejandro (Benicio del Toro), Graver’s mysterious and deeply troubled companion. Alejandro, Kate learns, is a former attorney — an unlikely and conspicuous addition to a team of highly experienced government agents and soldiers.
With minimal guidance from Graver, Kate is thrown into a world in which every boundary is blurred. National borders become highly permeable, enabling the cartels to ferry tons of drugs from Mexico into the United States. Moral distinctions regarding right and wrong, once clearly defined, are now uncomfortably hazy. Even Kate’s job title is more ambiguous than it once was.
“Sicario” is a gory, at-times painful film to watch. The film’s plot relies heavily on suspense, making for an at-once exhausting and riveting movie-going experience. Blood is spilled extensively and often, and dead and mutilated bodies play a major role in the film. The carnage is not without purpose, of course, but those who find bloodshed unpalatable might find themselves struggling through “Sicario.”
Morality, though not discussed explicitly, features heavily in “Sicario.” There is no overwhelming sense of black-and-white right and wrong, and no clear moral hero — other than Blunt’s Kate — to guide the viewer’s experience and interpretation of the film. Villeneuve offers to the viewers no clues regarding whom they should be rooting for, and he leaves them to pick through the moral scurf left behind by the film. Ultimately, the viewer feels as shipwrecked as Kate, lost and unsure, groping about to piece together some semblance of justice from fragments.
Visually, “Sicario” is stunning. Villeneuve’s camerawork is startlingly exact, shot in high definition, making extensive use of the light-and-dark motif. One of the most striking scenes of the film involves Graver’s team only moments before a shootout, the camera capturing its members’ silhouettes before the sunset. One by one, the soldiers descend into darkness, vanishing from the viewer’s line of sight. Villeneuve’s camerawork makes the allegory clear to the viewer. As the agents literally move into the dark, they also enter dim moral territory, in which their actions — though technically legal — are of questionable morality.
The film’s greatest triumph is the skill of its actors. Brolin plays his typical tough-guy character to a tee, and Del Toro’s calculating Alejandro is a chilling complement to Graver’s rough, haphazard energy. Both characters alternately serve to help and hinder Kate’s understanding of the U.S. government’s relationship with the cartels, and they do so brilliantly.
Blunt offers a refreshing change from the conventional male lead commonly seen in action films. Her skill as an agent is on par with — if not exceeding — that of every male in the film. She shies away from no challenge, always pressing on, gun withdrawn and cocked. Though she often stands out as not only the sole female but the lone civilian in a group, she is not fazed by the contrast. In fact, it is through the juxtaposition that Blunt’s Kate shines, making for an overall stellar performance.
“Sicario” weaves together a thrilling tale about an agent’s descent into uncharted legal and moral territory. Though bloody, the film offers an electric portrait of the relationship among government, morality and crime — one that even the most squeamish of viewers should attempt to brave.
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