As the man responsible for bleak films like “Prisoners” and “Enemy,” director Denis Villeneuve is not known for his optimistic worldview. It should come as no surprise that his latest venture is also marked by his now-trademark sense of despair. A thriller imbued with a stark atmosphere of misanthropy, “Sicario” follows FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) as she gradually discovers the truth about her government’s involvement in the Mexican drug trade.
As the leader of a kidnapping response team, Macer is accustomed to handling cartel-related hostage situations along the U.S.-Mexico border. During a raid on a known drug lord’s stateside property, Macer and her unit uncover dozens of unidentified corpses, further evidence of the cartels’ growing presence in the area. Following this discovery, she is offered a position on a taskforce devoted to the takedown of a wellknown kingpin based in Juarez. Her new superiors, Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), are frustratingly laconic, refusing to divulge their true objective to the suspicious agent.
“Sicario” demonstrates clearly that ignorance is far from bliss; until the third act of the movie, the audience is never in possession of more knowledge than Macer herself. Viewers share in her confusion and annoyance at the lack of answers from those in power, who placate Macer – and by extension, the audience – with half-truths and sugarcoated lies. But the truth, as revealed by Villeneuve, is devastating.
Blunt and Brolin are two of the best actors working today, and their performances are expectedly excellent. “Sicario” represents familiar territory for Brolin – after all, the film takes place in the same location as 2007's “No Country for Old Men,” a picture which scored Brolin several awards for his portrayal of a blue-collar man with a suitcase filled with money. But as the titular sicario, or hitman, it is Del Toro who is the ultimate focus of the movie. A criminally under-utilized actor, Del Toro has long been relegated to side roles, and “Sicario” is clearly a vehicle to showcase his talent. He is more than up to the task, although his character is hamstrung by a backstory so cliché as to border upon the laughable. Mercifully, Villeneuve has the good sense to not delve too deeply into Alejandro’s past.
“Sicario” is not a popcorn adventure filled with derring-do; it is a bitter commentary upon the ineffectiveness of any one individual. No matter where our loyalties lie, the film seems to say, we are all merely pawns of more powerful players. We have no real agency. Only those who recognize this will find any fulfillment in their lives.