Sicario is probably one of the best, most tense thrillers of the year. Any film that has its audience on the edge of their seats during a traffic jam surely deserves praise.
The premise is fairly straightforward and familiar to fans of director Denis Villeneuve. FBI Agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is sent to work as part of a government task force investigating drug cartels along the US-Mexican border. After leading a SWAT team that discovers dead bodies lining the walls of a home in Arizona, she is compelled to uncover the perpetrator and agrees to join those fighting the war on drugs along the border.
And so this brutal, bloody film goes. Except it's not quite that simple. Heading up the new team is the swaggering special agent Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) who certainly doesn't mince his words; and the mysterious Alejandro played with quiet menace by Benicio Del Toro. The operation is all kinds of shady, with neither man explaining their methodology to Kate with any sense of clarity. These men fight dirty in a world of guerilla warfare, ambiguous loyalty and shockingly gruesome violence. Is it even lawful?
That's the million dollar question, but this war on drugs forms the skeleton on which the real meat of the film hangs: Kate herself. She is our eyes and ears in this film - when she asks her leaders what's going on, she speaks for us all. Through her idealistic view we witness the events of the film, we question what she questions and, in the end, when she is forced to sign legal papers, we too are expected to be complicit in the events of the film.
Further, she is the only major female character of the film, a woman in a world of masculine bravado. Does this make her a strong character? She certainly eschews the usual female tropes: she's an excellent soldier chosen for her talent, she's not concerned with her appearance and she's more than happy to hang out with the lads. And despite some bold performances from her male cast members, Blunt holds her own delivering confidence and vulnerability in equal measure.
Or perhaps the film is anti-feminist? Why exactly did this task force invite a woman along for the ride? Do they think that, as female, she is weaker and easier to shock? Her sexuality and her loyalty to the law are certainly seen as a weakness used against her as, in the end, she is overbearingly manipulated by men. It's just another layer of ambiguity in this thought-provoking film.
More than anything else, though, Sicario is worth seeing for the cinematography of Roger Deakins, accompanied by the deep rumbling score of Jóhann Jóhannsson. Yes there is tense action here, the film's climactic battle shot through disorientating night vision reminiscent of Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty. But it's the quieter moments that impress: the bleak desert vistas; the overhead shots of the maze-like Mexican streets; the stunning use of light, shadow and silhouette. One shot in particular stands out: the soldiers filmed in silhouette sinking into an unknown horizon. It's a shot that sums up the danger and mystery of the film, the descent into a dark, murky underworld. Is this really suitable for a woman?
Watch: Sicario is out now.