There’s a scene in Sicario where Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) angrily asks what her squad is doing stuck at the Mexican border, as several cartel members descend on their vehicle. It’s an honest question, because up to that point, she really doesn’t have any clue what’s going on.  And the reason for that is simple: no one has any clue what’s really going on. In Denis Villeneuve’s third English language film, the Mexican border is presented as sheer chaos, with bad people on both sides of the line who are fighting for their own selfish needs. With an intriguing script from first-time writer Taylor Sheridan and absolutely stunning cinematography from industry veteran Roger Deakins, this is another homerun for Villeneuve. It’s a topnotch film in almost every department and it’s sure to provide viewers with one of the most tense viewing experiences of the year.

In a suburban Arizona community, a SWAT team descends on a house that they believe could contain several hostages. Inside, they find a grizzly crime scene with dozens of corpses hidden inside the walls. One of these agents is Kate Macer and after discovering these bodies, she’s called to headquarters where she’s introduced to Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), an extremely laid-back government agent. Graver asks her to take part in a secretive government mission that would combat the drug war taking place at the Mexican border. She reluctantly agrees, joining Graver and another mysterious individual named Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) as they travel south into Mexico. Little does she know that by accepting this job, she’s putting more than just her life on the line.

From its opening sequence all the way to its stunning conclusion, Sicario is packed to the brim with tension. Villeneuve stacks fantastic sequence upon fantastic sequence and somehow the film continually manages to top itself. The opening house raid and discovery of dozens of corpses inside the walls is shot more like a horror film than an action movie and it sets a dark tone that permeates throughout the rest of the film’s two-hour runtime. Without a doubt, the most suspenseful scene occurs when Kate and her squad attempt to sneak the brother of a Mexican drug lord across the border. Getting into Mexico is simple, but getting back into the U.S. is an entirely different ordeal.  They’re told that if there’s going to be any retaliation, it’s going to be at the border, so tensions are already high when they hit a section of standstill traffic. As they look around their vehicles, they realize that an attack could conceivably come from anywhere and it’s more a question of when the attack will happen rather than if it will happen.

These sequences of extreme anxiety are all exquisitely lensed by Roger Deakins, who puts in some of his best work in recent years. From the opening shot which contrasts a normal looking Arizona suburb against the desolate desert landscape to the climactic moments in an extravagant Mexican mansion, the visuals in the film never take a misstep, always looking fantastic, but never becoming so artsy that they distract from the story at hand. And the story at hand is quite a good one, presenting the war on drugs without any clear heroes or villains. It’s unclear how far Kate is willing to go to catch the men that are causing so much pain, but some of the men that she’s working with are going to break as many rules as they so desire. Their ultimate objective is to cause as much chaos as they can within the criminal community, which will hopefully lead them to the man in charge of it all. Will some people be hurt or even killed in the process? Sure, but Kate seems to be the only person with any qualms about this.

She was awesome in last year’s Edge of Tomorrow and Emily Blunt’s performance as Kate Macer only further cements her status as a female action star. She’s just as tough as the guys and thankfully there isn’t a moment in the film where someone feels the need to comment on her ability to do a job that is typically associated with men. She’s great at what she does and that’s all that matters. As Matt Graver, Josh Brolin is perfectly cast as the seemingly carefree government agent. Early on in the film we’re introduced to Matt, who is taking part in an important meeting with several government officials. The camera eventually pans to down to reveal Matt wearing flip-flops, an odd choice in a profession where people typically wear suits and ties. It’s a great character moment and Brolin perfectly exudes Matt’s easygoing demeanor. Finally, Benicio Del Toro is fairly subdued throughout most of the film, but an incredible sequence in the film’s third act reveals certain things about the character that only enhance Del Toro’s performance.

“This is a land of wolves now,” Alejandro tells Kate towards the end of the film. Kate is great at her job, but she’s also a good person and that trait may prevent her from surviving in a land full of wolves. Sicario is an unrelenting look into this bleak world and a film that benefits from the confident direction of Denis Villeneuve. If he can continue creating films that are as good as this and his last few efforts,  there’s he might just have what it takes to become one of the best filmmakers in the business. Sicario doesn’t offer many resolutions, but this is a topic that rarely has a happy ending. Try as we might, the drug trade just keeps on moving forward and there’s nothing that either side of the border can do to stop it.

Sicario receives 4/4

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