Tense and heart-pounding from the outset, the terrific Sicario sees young FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) enlisted and embroiled in a conflict between the US government and a Mexican drug cartel. This is a film where less is more; the performances are wonderfully understated and the set pieces are brilliantly restrained. The final product is less an action-heavy, border hopping, all-guns-blazing depiction of one small fragment of the war against drugs (though when it does do these things it does them well) and more a thought-provoking meditation on the way conflict blurs morality.
Emily Blunt’s acting muscle was established a decade ago in The Devil Wears Prada, but in Sicario she is given the chance to flex. She is the human touch in a cold, hardened world which her superiors inhabit and even perpetuate. Naturally, she is brilliant in every scene she is in, and one cannot help but share in her pain and frustration as Kate realises she is simply an innocent pawn who exists to be manipulated in a wider, sinister game. But where Blunt shines brightest is every moment she shares on screen with Benicio del Toro, whose chilling Alejandro Gillick represents the seemingly immoral, self-interested antithesis of who Macer understands herself to be.
The film establishes that ‘sicario’ is the Mexican word for ‘hitman’. How fitting, therefore, that on every technical level it hits the mark. Roger Deakins’ cinematography effortlessly creates the dark, dirty world of the drug battlefield, while Johan Johansson’s score is equally as potent and atmospheric. Even the sound of a single bullet as it punctuates a deathly silence is profoundly startling and unsettling, and it is unsurprising that Alan Robert Murray earned an Oscar nod for his sound work here.
Sicario is arguably most effective when it is still. Its finest, edge-of-the-seat action sequence takes place in a stationary traffic jam; the brutality of the drug cartel is made clear when lifeless, headless bodies are shown hanging from a bridge; the grounding realities of the danger of the drug trade are made most evident by an empty bed. It is ironic, then, that the stillness of individual moments, which take place across two countries divided by one static border, is what stands out in a film that is otherwise interested in the constantly shifting moral boundaries in an ongoing war.