Sicario review: a thrilling blend of action, intelligence and moral ambiguity

America’s endless War on Drugs is given a provocatively cynical spin in this intelligent, riveting thriller starring Emily Blunt

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Director: Denis Villeneuve
Cert: 15A
Genre: Action
Starring: Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin, Victor Garber, Jon Bernthal, Daniel Kaluuya, Jeffrey Donovan, Raoul Trujillo, Julio Cesar Cedillo
Running Time: 2 hrs 1 mins

In the later, harder-edged class of Cold War thriller, it became fashionable to suggest that neither side understood what it was fighting for. The conflict had become its own cause.

Denis Villeneuve’s striking new film suggests that one front in the endless “War on Drugs” – pitting an alphabet soup of US agencies against Mexican cartels – has become even further disconnected from its moral roots. It is akin to some medieval conflict triggered by a dispute over long- forgotten theological nuances. Nobody stops to fret about the poor wee users in midwestern suburbs and Californian ghettos. There are deals to be reneged upon and scores to be settled.

For all that, the protagonist is initially driven by moral outrage. During a drug raid in Arizona, FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) encounters a macabre array of bodies embedded in the walls of a shack. Already shaken by the discovery, she is further disturbed when colleagues get caught in a fatal booby trap.

Some shadowy wing
After all this, Kate proves open to the suggestion that she work with some shadowy wing of federal law enforcement. Her new boss proves to be the sort of bluff, sinister fixer who, these days, needs to be played by Josh Brolin. Kate wonders if they can track down the men who were responsible for the recent outrage. "The men who were really responsible," the boss assures her.


He is thinking of kingpins such as Manuel Díaz (Bernardo Saracino). Working with Alejandro (Benicio del Toro), a ruthless semi-attached agent eager for personal revenge, the team plan to transport Díaz’s brother into the US and trigger a reaction.

In earlier films such as Incendies and Prisoners, Villeneuve proved at home to all shades of creative ambiguity. The Canadian plays a tricky hand with great skill here. Sicario is properly appalled at the scant price put on life in this pointless conflict. When the agents drive through Juárez in search of Díaz's brother, they see bodies hanging from lampposts as a warning to any potential dissenters. Later, in a standoff at the border, Kate's own colleagues blow away innocent bystanders without any apparent twangs of conscience. "They won't even make the papers in El Paso," somebody quips.

The director does not, however, balk at injecting proper excitement into such set-pieces. That border firefight is among the most imaginative action sequences we have seen in recent years. In such films we expect pursuit to take place at great speed. This episode is, by near-comic contrast, carried out in a hopeless traffic jam among citizens who, before terror strikes, are mired in torpor.

Propulsive adventure
Elsewhere, Roger Deakins's camera dares to aestheticise some of the film's most troubling sequences. An assault through underground tunnels is shot on various types of night-vision equipment. In one astonishing shot, Deakins and Villeneuve silhouette the warriors in front of a falling sun that, despite the awful things we know, still seems to make awkward heroes of the US paramilitaries.

We end up with a propulsive adventure that, while remaining grimly cynical about the motivations of Kate’s colleagues, gestures towards the quasi-mythical cinema of the Manns (Anthony and Michael).

If Sicario has a flaw, it hangs around the misuse of Emily Blunt. It's hard to think of another film so urgent in its demands that a charismatic actor be nothing more than the "eyes and ears of the audience". A clever actor with the timing to turn even the drabbest line into a tasty zinger, Blunt finds herself asking our questions, expressing our doubts and allaying our confusion.

Blunt deserves better, but Sicario is still a cracker.

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist