There are few films - disgracefully few - like Sicario. One that has a level of intelligence not seen in crime for some time, that has a female lead and that's directed by someone with a real eye for crafting a scene both visually and emotionally. Watching Sicario, the one thing you'll be struck by how is gorgeous it looks and truly terrifying it is.
The film opens on the hinterlands between Mexico and the US and a shock raid on a supposed drug den. From the very beginning, we are fully aware of the world that the characters inhabit and we are entering. It is a world of violence, mistrust and retribution where blood is answered with blood. After the raid is abruptly ended, FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is sent before her male superiors where she's offered a unique proposal - join an inter-agency task force that will, as Josh Brolin's oily, free-wheeling bureaucrat describes, "dramatically overreact" to the incursions by the drug cartels into the US.
Blunt's character is then quickly shipped off to Juarez, Mexico where she's introduced to Allejandro (Benicio Del Toro), a Colombian prosecutor who's traded the courts for the trenches in the drug war. In a heart-stopping sequence that sees Blunt being driven through the streets of Juarez to transport a prisoner back to the US, we see that Juarez is more closer to the ninth circle of Hell than a bustling city in Mexico. In fact, the agents casually refer to the city as 'The Beast' whilst Johan Johansson's apocalyptic soundtrack drones over the horrifying images. As the film progresses, less is revealed about the true nature of Brolin and del Toro's work in Mexico and increasingly questionable methods are used as Blunt becomes more and more powerless to intervene.
In a sense, Sicario is closer to a horror than a crime thriller. Del Toro and Brolin are monsters, traversing the wastelands with no thought for anything trampled underfoot. The performances by both are truly astounding; Del Toro's quiet, restrained performance belies a terrifying, sinister presence underneath. Brolin, meanwhile, generates a different kind of horror. His disregard for life, procedure and general arrogance works as a microcosm of American foreign policy in both Mexico and across the globe. He swans into official meetings in a Hawai'ian shirt and flip-flops and casually puts Blunt's character into the firing line to suit his own purposes. Blunt, however, is the true star of the film. From the very beginning, we see a nuanced performance unlike anything we've seen in quite some time. She's a capable agent, but nothing can prepare her for what she is about to see and be party to. There's a feeling, as you're watching Sicario, that she is slowly being crushed - both physically, mentally and emotionally - which makes it all the more distressing to watch.
Taylor Sheridan's script crackles with authenticity and intensity in equal measure whilst Villeueve's pitch-perfect direction puts us right into Blunt's perspective. The walls are closing in and she's in a constant state of confusion, with the pressure becoming unbearable with each passing scene. She's taken from a contained, sincere example of police authority to a world of moral absence and casual violence. Del Toro and Brolin's characters are intent on one thing - causing as much chaos as they possibly can whilst they hunt the cartel leader. She can trust no one and, in one particularly disturbing scene, the dangers follow her home. Villeneueve is used to navigating complex stories that have no easy resolution and explore the dark depths people will go to in service to an ideal. Sheridan's screenplay makes us fully aware that every character - with the exception of Blunt - is working an angle. Nobody is to be trusted.
Reteaming with cinematographer Roger Deakins, Villeueve crafts scenes with ease. Beautifully constructed without being pretentious, they inform the story beautifully and wrap around the characters with grace. Already, Sicario is being compared to Michael Mann's output, which is fair - although Mann hasn't been this good in years. Here, we see a director at full strength and firing on all cylinders. Villenueve's ability to place the viewer right into the story is both exhilarating and terrifying. More than once, you'll have to remind yourself to take a breath. It's a bruising, terrorising experience watching Sicario as there are no easy answers to be gleaned from it - but it is one that should be experienced.
Easily one of the best films of 2015.