United States. Directed by Denis Villenueve, 2015. Starring Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, Benicio del Toro, Jon Bernthal, Victor Garber, Daniel Kaluuya. 121 minutes. 9/10

I can’t think of any metric by which anyone can claim that the War on Drugs has been a success. The cartels, having expanded from South America into Central America and Mexico, are busy turning those countries into replicas of their homelands, corruptocracies ruled by whoever can afford to pay the powers that be to look the other way. Demand for the cartels’ product, driven by consumers north of the Mexico-United States border, doesn’t seem to have diminished. Nativist politicans trade on ugly ethnic stereotypes to gain popularity. American diplomacy works on the “son-of-a-bitch” system perfected during the Cold War; resentment towards our nation festers as we make alliances with what we hope is the lesser of two evils.

This is the backdrop of Denis Villenueve’s crime action-thriller Sicario. FBI Special Agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) joins a multi-agency taskforce led by military consultant (a fancy way of saying “CIA agent”) Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and Latin American intelligence asset Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro). Their goal is to take down notorious drug lords Manuel Díaz and Fausto Alarcón.

Villenueve and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan give their story a structure similar to Apocalypse Now, with Macer taking the role of the soldier who thinks she’s tough, but soon finds her perceived toughness inadquate for her survival. Graver and Gillick aren’t tough or hard men; they’re sociopaths and psychopaths, for whom the means justify the ends. In such an environment, idealism rots like the dismembered, defiled bodies she sees hanging from the viaducts of Ciudad Juárez.

The entire cast shines–even minor characters such as Jeffrey Donovan (Burn Notice) as a CIA spook and Maximiliano Hernández (The Americans) as a cartel menial–but Blunt and del Toro command all the attention. Blunt perfectly embodies the balance of toughness and vulnerability that plagues too many actresses trying to pull off contrived “strong female characters,” while del Toro is one of the scariest dead-eyed psychos since Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men.

The ensemble helps to keep the production grounded when Sheridan’s screenplay lapses too far into absurdist territory. The performances fit well with Villenueve’s brutal direction and stark yet beautiful cinematography courtesy the great Roger Deakins. Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson provies a churning, queasy score that often induces feelings similar to nausea, all the better to maintain unease in the audience.

Sicario isn’t just a crime drama; it’s a meditation on how to preserve morality in an environment where morality doesn’t exist. It’s a cautionary tale, a warning of what will come if we continue to course we’re on. It’s one of the best films of the year.

SICARIO poster.

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