Director Denis Villeneuve’s recent films all seem to have one thing in common: a foreboding, ever-increasing, perpetual sense of dread. Sicario, in which an idealistic FBI agent (Emily Blunt) becomes embroiled in a covert, morally murky mission to take down a cartel boss, is no different. There’s an eerie iciness to the images Villeneuve and cinematographer Roger Deakins conjure up here; whether it is the shadow of a small jet engulfed by the monstrous desert, or a bird’s eye view of an agency convoy rendered tiny against “the beast” that is Juarez, Sicario’s images unsettle. It’s clear that Villeneuve has no interest in audience comfort, exacerbated by the persistent, brooding drone of Jóhann Jóhannsson’s music. Sicario may be a thriller, but it functions equally as efficiently as a horror film thanks to its mood and ideas.
And its ideas are not pretty. Blunt, in a career best performance, is our gateway into this world of murkiness. She is determined and capable, but vulnerable. Her Kate Macer finds herself in over her head, and her moral compass broken and battered, as she follows Matt Graver and Alejandro Gillick (Josh Brolin and Benicio del Toro, respectively) further down the rabbit hole. And the further down we go, the progressively darker it gets. And that’s the way it has to be. Sicario‘s “ideas” may be more appropriately labeled “questions,” which make it all the more effective. Its “war on drugs” story may be well-tread territory, and Taylor Sheridan’s script, although strong, may stand as the film’s weak point, but Villeneuve and company turn it in to something far from familiar. Just like Polytechnique, just like Prisoners, just like Enemy, Sicario gets under your skin quick, and stays there. And speaking of unsettling, Benicio del Toro also gives a career best performance here, and it is terrifying.
Sicario works in every way: as a political thriller, as a war movie, as a collection of scary, soulful images, but mostly it works as horror film with a heavy mood and atmosphere. Some may find its questions a bit too nihilistic, but I was grateful for something to further compel me even after I finally shook off its deep seated dread. And, unlike Anton Chigurh from No Country for Old Men (which this film visually homages more than once) none of Sicario‘s characters are simply nihilistic forces of nature – they are all human beings, barely, living and surviving in a “land of wolves” where justice and evil are irrevocably interlinked – and Villeneuve nails that theme home with horrifying precision and conviction.