There is a war going on in Northern Mexico. This war knows no good guys, only bad guys. Drug cartels fight vicious turf wars over the drug trade into the US, and it is devastating Mexican society. In essence, the cartels rule the land. Now, the US probably doesn’t care about bad guys killing bad guys, but it does want to do something about the influx of drugs into the country. But how far are you willing to go with that? This is the central question to Denis Villeneuve’s tight-wound thriller Sicario, marking the first entry into the Cannes competition for the Canadian director.
A specialist in kidnapping situations, FBI agent Kate Macy (Emily Blunt) is an idealistic woman with an outstanding track record. This is noticed higher up, and she is recruited for a special task force that is formed to catch Manuel Diaz, a high-ranking member of one of the cartels. The task force is led by special agent Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and a mysterious Colombian who only goes by the name of Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro). Kate is someone who likes to play everything by the rules, but it soon becomes clear that neither Graver nor Alejandro has those same beliefs. She is told to stay back, observe and learn, and is kept as much in the dark about the objectives of the task force as possible. Only gradually are she and her FBI partner Reggie Wayne (Daniel Kaluuya) fed information about the operation. Graver and Alejandro clearly don’t play by any book, and this increasingly puts pressure on Kate’s conscience. How far is she willing to go along, and if she is no longer willing, what will that mean for her and her safety?
If anything, Denis Villeneuve knows how to build tension, and this quality is on full display in Sicario. He excels in a number of set pieces with his ability to stretch the scenes while still maintaining suspense, with short bouts of action only functioning as release valves before he puts the pressure back on. Visually, he is not that interesting a director (although the film does have some beautiful shots), but his use of sound and especially the foreboding score help him create this tension, and he frequently employs a low camera viewpoint to put the viewer right in the action.
Furthermore, he gets some excellent performances out of his cast. Brolin and Del Toro do not have roles that demand the world of them, as these kind of tough-guy roles fit them like a glove, but they still manage to make their characters ambiguous enough to not be able to pinpoint them as good guys or bad guys (more on that later). The true stand-out here, however, is Emily Blunt as a woman in way over her head. She is a tough cookie when push comes to shove, but vulnerable enough to let the spiralling situation get to her, and Blunt portrays this gradual change in character very well, to the point where Kate is broken at the end of the film. Her character is a somewhat passive one, but that is mainly because she is supposed to be the stand-in for the viewer.
Which brings us to the screenplay, and the interesting moral dilemma it holds. In many ways, Sicario is akin to Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty. Like that film, Sicario asks the question about the goal we want to achieve (in this case quelling the influx of drugs; in ZD30 it was of course catching Osama Bin Laden), and how far we are willing to go to reach that goal. Brolin’s and Del Toro’s characters play some very dirty games, including with people like Kate who are supposed to be on the good side. They do seem to know what they are doing though, and they do work toward that goal that we so greatly want. Now the question lies with Kate (and by extension, us) if we are willing to look away while they do their work, or if our conscience will not allow us to stand for that. Zero Dark Thirty got lambasted for supposedly condoning torture (a contentious point of view, to say the least), and Sicario follows the same lines, just in a different war. So it will be very interesting to see what opinion will form around the film, with its stance that crossing-the-line work does get the job done. But at what cost?