In Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario, light is its own character. Through windows, it casts shadows that crawl across floors as if they were the hands of a doomsday clock, revealing the dust that hangs in the air as some kind of phantom menace. This tactile sense of physical reality, exquisitely summoned by Roger Deakins’s cinematography, feels like an almost gestural extension of F.B.I. agent Kate Macer’s (Emily Blunt) keen perceptual abilities. The film opens with a set piece that exudes the tenor of a Grand Guignol, with Kate barely surviving an explosion after some 40-odd corpses are found hidden and rotting in the walls of a drug den in the Arizona desert. And yet, the entirety of the film suggests its own sustained set piece, as its scenes are sutured together with transitional devices, like the shadow of a jet dancing across unusually verdant desert terrain toward destinations unknown, that symphonically work to establish the filmmakers’ view of life in the age of the modern-day drug war as an ever-crescendoing existential nightmare.
There’s a Hitchockian musicality to Villeneuve’s propulsive artistry. Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score, layered atop images of vehicles gliding past border control and government agents worming their way through a tunnel connecting El Paso to Juarez, is just one of many elements that conjure a relentlessly terrifying realm of despair. Even the film’s pregnant pauses hum with an unbearably anxious vitality. The overall effect of Sicario’s spectacular overwroughtness, then, is similar to that of Villeneuve’s prior Polytechnique, in that the concentration of its philosophical thought—the obsessiveness with which it regards how tragedy metaphysically links its victims—can feel subservient to its political imagination. There isn’t much to the narrative beyond sending Kate off screen every so often to mull over some issue-oriented talking point about the give and take of fighting the war on drugs.
Taylor Sheridan’s screenplay promises and half-delivers a treatise on female power—a writ-large version of that great image from Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs where Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling stands inside an elevator flanked by a group of absurdly and intimidatingly tall men. Early on, Kate goes to work for a government contractor, Matt (Josh Brolin), without ever knowing exactly why she’s been chosen (her razor-sharp reflexes and impressive skill for survival don’t seem like sufficient reasons), or why exactly they’re hunting an anonymous drug lord. A briefing inside a room filled with men who look as if they’ve survived many a warzone leads to a meeting with the shadowy Alejandro (Benicio del Toro), who, like Matt, rebuffs Kate’s entreaties for more information. The truth, almost perversely anticlimactic, eventually comes out and makes her feel like a nonentity—and in a flash, the film reveals its non-essentialist view of gender.
Sicario understands everyone as helpless against the throes of the drug war. If the film’s most horrifying image, depicting three dismembered bodies hanging from a highway overpass in Juarez, weren’t so rooted in the randomness that’s so cruelly at work in this real-life war, it would be easier to dismiss the cynically moral vision at play here as entirely facile and simplistic. In a telling scene, Kate’s friend and colleague, Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya), gets clocked by an agent for coming to her defense after she learns the truth of Alejandro’s involvement in the hunt for the drug lord. “Just lay back, baby. Let it happen,” the agent says, almost as if he were referencing the audience’s relationship to the camerawork’s sensory overload. His mantra, too, hauntingly dovetails with Matt’s earlier advice to Kay: “Learn, that’s why you’re here.” By the end of the film, her depressing resignation to the fact that she’s a pawn in a game way beyond her control gets to the essence of the film’s artful articulation of the compromises on which the world sadly runs.