You know this story. Something bad is going to happen. A clock – maybe figurative, maybe literal – is ticking, and only one person can stop it. The hero’s sole option is to disregard protocol and do what they believe is necessary, rules be damned. Whole genres of cinema are based on this construct, populated with
unorthodox mavericks and rebels who know better than those in charge. While loose cannons make for exciting movies, in the real world it’s not so straightforward and can lead to abuses of power.
This notion lies at the heart of French- Canadian director Denis Villeneuve’s seventh feature, Sicario, a tense, muscular thriller that explores the effects of unregulated law enforcement. Unfolding in Arizona and Mexico, where drugs, money and death flow liberally through a porous border, the film follows FBI agent Kate
Macer (Emily Blunt) as she is recruited to a special government unit tasked with challenging the powerful Sonora drug cartel. Led by the sandal-wearing, gumchewing Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), an operative of uncertain departmental origin, the team make illicit and bombastic trips across the border in an attempt to goad the cartel into a mistake. With objectives that start off opaque and only get murkier, their tactic is to “shake the tree and create chaos” instead of following official procedure. It is in the representation of these moments that Villeneuve, who previously directed the excellent Prisoners (2013), Incendies (2010) and Polytechnique (2009), demonstrates an aptitude for gripping set pieces. (A scene involving a convoy stuck in a traffic jam is one of the most suspenseful sequences of the year, despite being a car chase in which
cars don’t move.)
Attracted by the opportunity to affect major change in the increasingly violent drug war and yet against her better judgement, Kate sticks with the unit. She is compellingly played by Emily Blunt, who portrays her
as steely but vulnerable, self-assured but hesitant, and competent yet seemingly adrift in this moral vacuum. Tough enough to conduct her own medical treatment after being caught in an explosion, she is nevertheless realistically fearful in life-or-death situations. Brolin brings swagger to his role, while Benicio del Toro almost steals the film as a haunted, shadowy figure with a hidden agenda.
Villeneuve, aided by Taylor Sheridan’s whip-smart screenplay and Roger Deakins’ exceptional cinematography, takes us deep into this dark world of Black Ops whilst always maintaining enough distance to question the ideology of this enterprise, no matter its success. And for all its thrills, Sicario is wise not to offer any easy answers to a complex, ethically murky situation.
Published in Curzon Issue 53. To read the original article click here.