Benicio Del Toro rocks some seriously distracting camel-toe in one harrowing scene, but that’s only the third or fourth most visceral image in Sicario. It’s a violent drug cartel thriller in which Emily Blunt plays Kate Macer, a steely FBI door-kicker who finds herself drafted into a highly secretive, off-the-books government task force.
Sicario opens with Macer heading up a suburban drug raid turned blood-soaked horror show, as agents discover strangled and mutilated corpses neatly packed inside the walls and floors of the house, before they all promptly stroll outside to deposit their breakfasts on the patio. From the outset, director Denis Villeneuve presents a brutally unflinching depiction of cartel violence, and dismembered victims are strewn about early scenes like confetti.
While it doesn’t shy away from all this sobering gore, Sicario doesn’t dwell on it either. A flip-flop wearing mystery man from an ambiguous echelon of government (Josh Brolin, who’s excellent here) swoops in to enlist Blunt to his team of border-hopping cartel-fighters. Soon her by-the-book idealism is violently tested by her new employer’s glib approach to illegal extraditions, private wars and extrajudicial murders.
Her confusion about her role in this war is the same as our own, as the chummy Brolin willfully keeps Macer in the dark. In this ethical sudoku puzzle of unknown opponents and blurred parameters, the cartel genre’s most well-trodden locations become renewed and electrifyingly tense. It’s like watching your very first Mexican drug war all over again.
Murder capital Ciudad Juarez is the setting of Sicario’s most nut-wrenchingly stressful scenes, in which the protagonists’ conspicuous cavalcade of five black SUVs traces a hasty path through cartel-town on its way back to the US border. Masterfully directed with long, lingering shots that leave you desperately anxious, the sense of imminent danger is palpable. You could easily palp it. In fact I think I palped it twice.
A sharp and intensely intelligent script throws out some memorable lines, too. Benicio Del Toro – Brolin’s compadre in arms – icily rebuffs an overly questioning Macer early on. “You’re asking me how a watch works,” he says. “For now, let’s just keep an eye on the time.” Quite how Macer doesn’t respond with “Oh my God, that’s so cool” is a mystery.
Sicario’s a thriller that’s felt in the head, heart and at the bottom of the stomach. A brutal parade of knife-edge tension and, very occasionally, some eye-catching crotch-knots.