The new Netflix Pablo Escobar drama Narcos opens with the following title card: “Magical realism is defined as what happens when a highly detailed, realistic setting is invaded by something too strange to believe.”
Denis Villeneuve’s new drug war thriller Sicario could use a similar message: “Horror is defined as what happens when a highly detailed, realistic setting is invaded by something too heinous to accept.”
And so it goes with Sicario, a film that feels tonally closer to David Fincher’s Seven than Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic. Villeneuve focuses on the dubious tactics engaged by various U.S. agencies to disrupt the narco-fueled chaos that is modern Mexico, depicting the American war on the illegal drug trade as a morass of moral relativism and shadowy conduct. It’s a battle with no heroes, where monsters use monsters to kill monsters, all done with the darkened tones and nerve-jangling soundtrack of contemporary horror cinema. Villeneuve lays on the gloom and dread to a near-suffocating degree, coating every moment with a feeling of intense, omnipresent danger, as if at any second a bullet could come bursting through the head of anyone on screen. He crafts the film almost like a ghost story, but one where the haunted house is the U.S-Mexican border, and the things that go bump in the night are far, far more terrifying than any supernatural beastie ever could be. It’s an effective approach, immersed in the cynicism and anger that comes with fighting such a futile struggle, reflective of the hopelessness that surrounds this deeply violent world.
Yet at times Villeneuve also comes across as troublingly enticed by the violence of his story, eager to put Hollywood action movie bluster into a film that hardly warrants such an approach. As a result, he never seem quite comfortable—or sure—with what he wants to present: is Sicario a critique of the futility of our neverending War on Drugs? An indictment of the cyclical nature of fighting blood with blood? A full-on violent revenge fantasy?
For better or worse, it becomes all three. Yet the film works best when it’s one of the first two, as it weaves the tangled relationship between Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), a Phoenix-based FBI agent drawn into the secrective, not-quite-legal machinations of the cryptic yet jocular Agent Graver (Josh Brolin) as he tries to disrupt the cartel activity wreaking havoc just across the border. Joining her is the even more mysterious Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), a quiet, intense Colombian who serves as an “advisor”, yet Macer knows such a title hardly scratches the surface of why he’s really along for the ride. Macer is never sure of her purpose, and only grows increasingly skeptical of the whats and whys of their operation as bodies begin to pile up and Graver and Alejandro enigmatically keep bringing her along. The film refuses to give us any easy answers for Kate’s questions; the sneaky, excellent script from Taylor Sheridan holds its cards deviously close to its chest, doling out information only with almost palpable reluctance, keeping Kate—and us—always guessing as to just what the endgame to all this intrigue and obfuscation might be.
Villeneuve ratchets up this tension until it all breaks free during an amazing tunnel raid that starts the final act, a breathless, adrenalized sequence that is simultaneously mesmerizing and terrifying. It’s the perfect summation of everything the film has been building to—a mission of dubious legality put on by men with no concern over jurisdiction or rights—and it unfolds as a harrowing blend of confusion and deadly precision, all shot through the gorgeous lens of cinematographer Roger Deakins with Jóhann Jóhannsson’s unrelenting, amazing score pulsing along. It’s the sort of sequence that gobbles up awards, and by god, it better finally earn Deakins his Oscar.
Unfortunately, as fiercely as Sicario attempts to expose the shaky ethics and cutthroat pragmatism that drives Graver’s war, it also can’t help but romanticize some of this conflict’s worst tendencies. The opening and ending sequences both seem to delight in the carnage produced under such horrible circumstances, changing the tone from insightful outrage to bloodthirsty titillation. The final stanza serves as the more egregious of the two, as the film abandons Kate’s story altogether and instead follows Alejandro off on a clandestine mission across the border. This whole section of the film feels heavy-handed and off-target, as if Villeneuve wants to drive home a subversive message of American complicity in the horrific acts that regularly occur in the name of the War on Drugs, yet does so by suddenly turning the plot into a dark twist on the latter day Bond films. It comes dangerously close to pandering, creating a frustrating end such an otherwise gripping, astute film.
Yet, as tangential and self-defeating as this final segment may be, it doesn’t undo the persistent anxiety and fascinating gloom of the rest of the movie. There’s so much good here: from the trio of lead performances—Blunt especially, proving she can play a hardass without feeling the need to regurgitate a bunch of male macho bullshit—to Deakins’ brilliant cinematography to the near-endless font of quotable lines (“You are not a wolf. And this is the land of wolves now,” and so on.) If only Villeneuve could’ve been content with illustrating the horror of this fruitless struggle, rather than being seduced by the provocativeness of the violence within it.