The opening 40 minutes of Denis Villeneuve’s “Sicario” are probably the best of any film you will see this year. He kicks off with a bang, when a SWAT team rams a truck into a living room in suburban Phoenix. But look at the delicate lozenges of sunlight playing on the curtains before they hit, or the dust that envelops the FBI agent, Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), once inside, and her shaking fingers after a chamber of corpses is found entombed in the walls. Villeneuve, as his previous film, “Prisoners”, suggested, is not interested in the violence itself so much as the trembling prelude and jittery aftershock. He has made a real rattlesnake of a movie, all coiled stealth and hidden sting, as befits a film about the drug trade.
Kate is invited to join a mission aimed at boxing in a Mexican drug lord. Beyond that, she isn’t told anything by the agent assigning her, Matt (Josh Brolin). “What’s our objective?” she asks. “To dramatically overreact”, he says, with a smirk, before ushering her onto a private jet accompanied by a mysterious heavy named Alejandro (Benicio del Toro), who has the sleepless, graven air of a man hunting down the grim reaper. “Is he CIA?” she asks. Alejandro isn’t exactly guilty of over-sharing, either. “You are asking me to explain how a watch works,” he says, when grilled for details, “for now let’s just keep an eye on the time.” It’s a great line which, like the film, reveals Villeneuve’s minimalist technique working to Hitchcockian effect. He makes his move on your nerves through the tick-tock of tiny details: Brolin’s flip-flops and his Cheshire-cat grin, the nightmares that interrupt Del Toro’s twitchy sleep. And these are the good guys, remember. Imagine what the bad guys are like. A row of headless corpses hung beneath an overpass gives you some idea.
The mission is bound for somewhere “in the El Paso area”, which turns out, on closer inspection, to mean Mexico. They are to pick up the drug lord’s brother, who is in Mexican police custody, and get him safely back to the United States. Villeneuve shoots the sequence as Kathryn Bigelow shot the incursion into Pakistan in “Zero Dark Thirty”: a pounding of choppers, then a convoy of SUVs accompanied by jeeps laden with machine guns bouncing over speed bumps. The vehicles’ haste tells you all you need to know about the danger lurking in the streets beyond, everyone’s fingers itching their triggers, like gunslingers in the old Wild West. The whole thing is edited to perfection. Above all, listen to what Villeneuve does on the soundtrack: not just the distant throb of drums that builds towards each spike in the action, but the air-conditioned hum of the American headquarters, or the Lynchian moan of an aircraft interior, or a torture sequence conveyed entirely by ear, through a series of winded grunts—whether from the torturer as he exerts himself, or his victim, is hard to say.
That ambiguity is entirely cultivated. “Sicario” has all the intelligence and complexity you could wish for in a movie tackling a subject as labyrinthine as the drug trade, and is by far the smartest take on the subject since Soderbergh’s “Traffic”. “Nothing will make sense to your American ears,” Del Toro says. “But in the end you will understand.” That has the sound of Graham Greene, and “Sicario” is the most Greenian of films, cross-hatched with ambiguity. The fate awaiting Kate is as weary of heart as Hawthorne’s in “Our Man in Havana” or Scobie’s in “The Heart of the Matter”. You could argue that its commitment to black-market geopolitical nuance gets in the way of its more straightforward duties as a thriller. Anyone expecting a professional coming-of-age, like Clarice Starling’s in “The Silence of the Lambs”, is in for a profound disappointment. Edged out of the action, Kate’s demand for answers frustrated at every turn, Blunt’s job is to represent the baffled conscience that understands only too late the treacherousness of the ground underfoot. “Just soak it up like a sponge,” Brolin advises her.
On the other hand, what a sponge. Blunt’s turnaround from quick-witted supporting comedienne in “The Devil Wears Prada” to terse action heroine in time-twisters like “Looper” and the underrated “Edge of Tomorrow” has been something to behold. “She’s been busting down doors from day one,” says her FBI boss (Victor Garber), and while you can well believe it, it’s the rapid succession of blinks she uses to clear her head immediately after doing so, or the simple “FUCK!” she exclaims after she shoots a man, that let you know the cost of each action to her nerves, and stomach. She’s a reaction hero. Brolin is a superbly smarmy cynic breakfasting on others’ innocence, but it is Del Toro who steals the picture. He’s put on weight since we last saw him—a towering man mountain, haggard with dire knowledge of the evil men do. You keep waiting for the thing that happened to him, and which seems to keep happening in constant replay behind those haunted eyes, to take place on screen. Finally it does, and Del Toro rises to the occasion as if greeting an old friend.
Sicario Released in America on September 18th, and in Britain on October 8th