“Sicario” gets mortified by the war on drugs

 

Poster for Denis Villeneuve's Sicario

Emily Blunt stars as an FBI agent who gets her big shot at making a real difference in the war on drugs in Denis Villeneuve’s nimble, moody Sicario. Having made a name for herself raiding drug houses in Arizona, Blunt’s Kate Macer is recruited by shady CIA operative Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) to participate in classified missions against the cartels on the Texan border. It only takes one day for her to be floored by what she sees. She attends a briefing for an illegal incursion into Mexico, gets dragged along as little more than an observer, and to her growing mortification, watches her new allies overstep their bounds wherever they go, casually throwing the potential for collateral damage and due process to the wind in the course of their work. If Macer was already part of a complicated fight, her involvement with the CIA has only made it worse, dissolving the moral high ground beneath her feet as she tries to make sense of Graver’s brash and brutish tactics.

Macer is the latest in Blunt’s line of cool, somewhat sidelined roles. For all the complaints about her playing second fiddle to Tom Cruise in Edge of Tomorrow, however, there’s actually a valid reason for her kinda sorta peripheral role here, where we admittedly spend a lot of our time, too. The less she gets to do, the more Benicio Del Toro’s mysterious Alejandro gets to, and we learn just as Macer does that the politics surrounding the drug war are much more personal and quietly combated than we are led to believe; that the deadly drug busts she’s been building her career around are blips on the radar in the grand scheme of things. Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan also ensures that Macer sticks around for a better reason than to just give the audience a fly-on-the-wall look at the the intersection between the cloak and dagger and outright warfare of the drug trade. Her continued cooperation is part and parcel with Graver’s and Alejandro’s expanding operations, and a late revelation about her involvement comes as a gut punch to anyone hoping to see Blunt do anything approaching heroic.

Denis Villeneuve brings a surprisingly mainstream sensibility to both the pacing and humor of Sicario, chasing the harrowing pessimism with moments of camaraderie between Macer and empathetic partner Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya) and obnoxious ripostes by the always dependable Brolin. It’s the best he can do with difficult subject matter that at this point can only honestly be approached from opposite ends of the dramatic spectrum. It’s either this level of graveness or the inanity of Pineapple Express when it comes to covering the ugly capitalism and gruesomeness of a nigh-unsolvable problem. With cinematographer Roger Deakins’s help, Villeneuve opts for full seriousness, exposing the rotting underbelly of the drug war to the dry heat and bright sun of the Mexican-American border, exploring the little, unseen dramas that we are helpless to prevent in a war that’s happening right before our eyes.

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