‘Sicario’ Captures the Harrowing Reality of America’s War on Drugs

The first time we see Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), the protagonist of Denis Villeneuve’s masterful Sicario, her eyes are closed. It’s a pose of tension, and a not-unreasonable amount of fear; she is leading a team into an Arizona home controlled by a drug cartel, and not long after nearly getting her head blown off, they will discover bodies in its walls, lined up between each stud, like some sort of a crypt. This is the first of many things she will see over the days that follow — and will be unable to un-see. At the beginning of Sicario, her eyes are closed; by the end, they are wide open, though the benefit of that awakening is up for debate.

The film, whose initial trailers made it look like Traffic Redux thanks to the war-on-drugs subject matter and the casting of Benicio Del Toro, has already been compared to Zero Dark Thirty, and it’s easy to see why: It takes on a seemingly unwinnable policy war, it delves into the fuzzy legalities of fighting said war, it places a tough woman at its center, and it concludes with an extended raid sequence (even borrowing the earlier picture’s copious infrared and night vision photography).

The key difference between the films is the station, and journey, of the protagonists. If Jessica Chastain’s Maya was an instigator, Blunt’s Kate is an observer; things happen to her, whereas Maya made things happen. Much of this is a result of the scope of story Villeneuve and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan are telling — ZDT stretched years, while Sicario’s action is telescoped into a few days, as FBI agent Kate is drafted into a multi-agency task force shaking the border trees for the head of a cartel.

Emily Blunt in "Sicario"

That crew is led by Matt (Josh Brolin), whose casual dress and manner are an effective cover for a chillingly flexible morality (listen to the folksy way he says they’ll be picking up an asset located in “El Paso… area”). But carrying equal weight and power is the mysterious Alejandro (Del Toro), whose precise affiliation — to say nothing of his loyalties or backstory — is not given up easily. It’s a complex operation, with a dizzying array of players and moves, so Kate is the audience surrogate, its intricacies seen (and more of than than not, hidden) as the story is told through her eyes — sometimes literally, with liberal and effective use of point-of-view shots.

“Nothing will make sense to your American ears,” Alejandro tells her, “and you will doubt everything we do. But in the end, you will understand.” He is right on all three points. As the operation proceeds, crossing borders and breaking laws willy-nilly, she’s often forced to put things together from context and assumptions, and thus we are too (with the assistance of Roger Deakins’ moody cinematography; his camera moves with the deliberate dread of a horror movie, and he has a way of lighting even pleasant social situations in a way that renders them ominous).

As predicted, she has doubts, and raises questions; early on, her challenges are handled with a simplicity that borders on clumsiness, as an argument with Brolin is carefully framed to include an American flag flapping overhead. But the deeper in she goes and the louder she objects, the clearer it becomes that she cannot play this by the book, because “the book” has been torn and shredded and tossed into the fire as kindling.

Blunt’s is smart casting for the simple fact that she’s a terrific actor — this is one of those roles where you marvel at how little she’s doing with tiny, two-word lines like, “The truth” and “I’ll volunteer” — but more than that, her female face among the pistol-packing good ol’ boys and stern suits (shades of Foster in Silence of the Lambs) emphasizes her status as an outsider. By the time she finally pushes back, prompting not only assaults against her and FBI partner Reggie (Daniel Kaluyya, great) but rape language like, “Just relax” and “Just lie back, baby, let it happen,” her story has become something of a parable for feminism in the political system: smart women can try and try to do it right and make it right, and they’ll still get cut down at every opportunity, because it’s all broken beyond repair.

Benicio Del Toro in "Sicario"

The embodiment of that dysfunction at first seems to be Brolin’s shake-the-Etch-a-Sketch CIA man, but by the picture’s conclusion, it’s Del Toro, whose stone face and meticulous demeanor (watch the way he folds that sport coat for a master class in physical action as character) occasionally slip, if only for a second. Yet by the time he arrives at his ultimate target, he can’t pretend anymore, and if he is a man who can get things done, the cost is worth weighing. The grisliness of that encounter is deliberate, and telling: if the object of their operation is a monster, that’s one thing. But if we must make ourselves monsters to catch him, what then?

This is not to imply that Sicario is all sermonizing and metaphor; it’s a thoughtful film, but also a visceral and affecting one, capturing the intensity of these raids and encounters, thanks in no small part to Joe Walker’s crackerjack, hair-trigger editing and Jóhann Jóhannsson’s pounding, relentless score. It’s a picture that grabs your innards, and squeezes. It moves so quickly, in fact, that it’s easy to overlook some of its narrative shortcuts (the business with the wristbands, for example, is too, too easy), though some of my colleagues have seized on questions of credibility relating to the Kate character — would she really be this idealistic and naïve? Wouldn’t she figure this thing out before she does? How can she not know the score?

Fine points all, to which I’d only respond thus: You’d think she would, but she doesn’t, because she is us. And ultimately, it’s better to think you could do some good than to get the opportunity, and discover the game was over before you even suited up.

Sicario is out Friday in limited release.