Tightly wound from the opening frame, Denis Villeneueve’s Sicario opens to the gripping sounds of Jóhann Jóhannsson’s gripping electronic score, as FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) rides in an armored vehicle to an Arizona house linked with drug traffickers. Clad in full combat armor herself, as are her partner Reggie Wayne (Daniel Kaluuya) and the dozens of other agents with them. Like the viewer, Macer doesn’t know what exactly she’s getting herself into, but the foreboding look on her face as she takes deep breaths and tries to relax suggests that she has some idea of the danger lying ahead.
It comes as soon as she enters the house in the form of a brief and brutal shootout, but the worst doesn’t arrive until she and her fellow agents clear what appears to be the most imminent danger. Wayne tears at a hole in the wall, uncovering a slew of dead bodies covered in bags who all appear to have been murdered execution-style. The troops go out to vomit, and the viewer wants to leave his seat and do the same. Before Villeneuve gives the audience a break from the scene, there’s a massive explosion, and limbs fly around the screen. It’s a pulverizing prologue and a perfect introduction to the brutal world of Sicario.
Scenes such as these abound throughout the film’s two-hour running time, but they never feel gratuitous in the slightest. Villeneuve is a flawless action choreographer, and he keeps the tension in the sequences at a remarkably high level throughout their duration. But unsatisfied with simply putting on a good show, Villeneuve emphasizes the horror of the violence he depicts in a way that makes the viewer feel the full weight of the brutality. And while the violence is extreme, the extremity calls attention to itself and imposes a devastating impact.
In Macer’s case, the killings lead her on a vicious odyssey that’s partly about revenge, partly about justice, and partly about the mere virtue of her commitment. Government official Matt (Josh Brolin) informs her that the house belongs to the drug kingpin Manuel Diaz (Bernardo P. Saracino), and he offers her the chance to get back at him for the violence. She takes the offer, but not before he can insultingly ask her whether she has a husband or kids as if either would make it unacceptable for her to take the job. Slighted but not deterred by the misogyny, Mercer obliges, and she soon finds herself in the terrifying war zone of Juarez.
She’s aided by Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), a man who ostensibly fights on the American side but whose true allegiances are obscured. In a haunting introduction to the character, Alejandro’s itchy trigger finger trembles as he sleeps on a plane, and Mercer is shocked as he awakes in fright and appears ready to take on whoever dares try and attack him. It’s a beautifully played moment in a powerhouse performance by Del Toro, and one which makes for an ominous portrait of the horrors to come.
And come they do, but never as cheap entertainment value. As Macer chain-smokes and her loosely connected foil of a Sonoran police officer (Maximiliano Hernández) pours whisky in his coffee, Villeneuve keeps the viewer’s thoughts on the horrific effects of the violence and the ways in which people cope with it. For all of its grimness, Sicario is a remarkably humanistic film and one which never loses sight of how the brutality it depicts impacts those who encounter it. Villeneuve sometimes achieves this through shock, such as in the horrifying images of decapitated bodies, and sometimes through subtlety, such as when the camera purposefully avoids victims and forces the viewer to imagine the suffering based on sounds alone. Either way, the effect is visceral and haunting. Even though Villeneuve mostly keeps the focus on the Americans, the intensity of what they experience invites the viewer to empathize with anyone who has to deal with it. Without using a David Simon-esque birds-eye view on the War on Drugs, Villeneuve and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan manage to provide an account of the situation which encourages empathy for all involved.
The events Villeneuve depicts undoubtedly haunt the men and women who live real-life versions of them on a daily basis, and it’s this pervasiveness that appears to be his ultimate area of interest. In the chilling final scene, Villeneuve presents the image of a world run by violence to the point where its inhabitants become desensitized to its effects. Regardless, there’s nothing at all desensitizing about Sicario, and it’s the rare film that rubs the viewer’s face in violence without ever approaching glorifying it.