I wonder about Denis Villeneuve's sense of humor, because after seeing four of his films, I'm starting to think he must never be happy. He seems to seek out the bleakest, darkest, most soul-crushing material, and then proceeds to present it in the harshest, bitterest light possible. Case in point: "Sicario," which looks at several fictional operations carried out by the CIA against the encroachment of the increasingly violent, ruthless Mexican cartels. Our heroine is FBI Agent Kate Mercer (Emily Blunt), who has the thankless job of being the naïve idealist whose worldview and values are mercilessly torn down and challenged at every turn by everyone else around her. A few jokes are cracked, very black and very sick, and nobody is expected to laugh.
After distinguishing herself in a drug raid gone very wrong, Mercer is recruited by two CIA officers, Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and Alejandro Gillick (Benicio Del Toro), to go across the border to Juarez and extradite the cartel hitmen responsible for a series of grisly killings in Arizona. Mercer is unnerved by the pair's mercenary tactics and underhanded dealing. She and her partner Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya) are also constantly kept in the dark about what's going on, because what Graver and Gillick are doing is often illegal. On the other hand, the cartel's influence is everywhere, and corruption is endemic on both sides of the border. Trying to play by the rules looks more and more foolhardy as the bodies continue to pile up around them.
"Sicario" is not an easy watch. There's plenty of imagery that is straight out of extreme genre films like "Cheap Thrills" or "You're Next." Here, however, it's all played straight with a grim seriousness, and absolutely not meant to be enjoyed for its depravity. I greatly respect Denis Villeneuvefor that, even as "Sicario" made me feel more and more uncomfortable as the film went on. In one of the earliest scenes, plastic-wrapped corpses are discovered in the walls of a seemingly normal suburban house, nothing particularly gruesome, but disturbing in their anonymity and their high number. We glimpse them in several scenes, slightly out of focus in the background, or just on the edge of the frame. Their presence is impossible to ignore, even when we no longer within our view.
There are many elements of "Sicario" that are weak, notably the script. The characters are thinly drawn, and the writing is especially ungenerous to Mercer and the members of the cartel. The big ideas are underlined constantly, and I couldn't help rolling my eyes at some of the on-the-nose dialogue. However, the movie works extraordinarily well as a thriller, with Villeneuve building up some heady tension in beautifully executed set piece after set piece. Roger Deakins is back to deliver more stark, disquieting imagery, including a segment that makes excellent use of night vision and infrared technology. It's instrumental in creating the film's nightmare world where massive systemic failures have lead to a complete loss of security for everyone.
Then there's Benicio Del Toro, who gets a juicy part in Alejandro Gillick, revealing himself as the real star of the picture late in the game. Gillick sneaks up on you, initially operating on one specific level, letting you get comfortable with him in a certain context, before revealing himself to be something else entirely. Del Toro not only plays this to a tee, but enlivens the whole film while he's at it. There has been some chatter about a "Sicario" sequel built around Gillick, and I'd be happy to see it. He's really the only one in "Sicario" who turns out to be a human being in the end, albeit an extraordinarily damaged one.
I'd suggest watching "Sicario" in conjunction with "Cartel Land," an equally disturbing documentary about recent Mexican and American efforts to combat the cartels. It should provide some important context, and help to drive home that Villeneuve doesn't exaggerate how dire the situation at the border is nearly as much as we might think. I expect that we're going to be seeing more films about this over the next few years, because the subject matter is so compelling. However, I'm betting that not many will have the guts to take the same approach as Denis Villeneuve, who refuses to pretend that there may be a light at the end of the tunnel.