If you want a cinema experience that is going to knock you out of your boots from the very first scene and keep up the relentless sense of expectation (and foreboding) throughout, you need to go and see Sicario.
This brutal, appalling, enthralling look at the Mexican drug cartels isn’t just hard-hitting, its rib-breaking and thought-provoking. Those of a more gentle disposition may need to look away, but should still watch and wonder how a country so wracked with casual violence can still survive its internal anarchy.
If you thought recreational drugs were all about having a good time on a Saturday night, this film will show you the gory, disgusting, depraved reality behind the drug trade and it certainly isn’t pretty.
Doing her best to navigate this world is FBI agent Kate (an amazing performance from Emily Blunt), who does her job by the letter of the law and takes even the smallest of victories against the drug barons as evidence some progress is being made.
But these the not the tactics of a new, renegade cross-agency band of modern-day pirates led by Matt (Josh Brolin) and the sicario (assassin) of the film’s title, Alejandro (Benicio del Toro). While Kate wants to play it by the book, they will do anything (torture, embezzlement, illegal entry of another country’s territory) to disrupt the balance of power within the South American drug world. They want to throw a bomb into the middle of the cartels, setting Jefe against Jefe and creating an internal war they hope will unsettle, if not destroy, the drug gangs.
From the outset Kate is in way over her head but cannot stop herself from getting deeper and deeper into dangerous territory that will not only threaten her life but also her sense of what is right and what is wrong and will shake her belief in herself to its very core.
There are some stand-out scenes here (especially when Kate crosses illegally from the USA into Mexico) where you’ll find yourself biting your knuckles as the tension just keeps racheting up.
Cinematographer Roger Deakins makes the menacing, unbelievably macho border fence between America and Mexico into a character within the film and each time you see it you just know it is going to be the precursor to yet another inhuman act of torture or violence.
But best of all are the scenes between Alejandro and Kate, many of them silent, but filled with resonances from the past – regrets, sorrows, desires – and strange omens for the future, that display a depth of talent and emotional intelligence that is truly astonishing.
In the last, utterly gut-wrenching scene, just when you think that perhaps Kate has escaped with her sanity and career intact, it is Alejandro, her would-be saviour, who delivers the symbolic blow that destroys her completely.
Many people will not like director Denis Villeneuve’s film, finding it upsetting and gruesome in the extreme. But this is film-making of exceptional quality and character, not shying away from the unsavoury, but not glorifying it either.
Sicario is a film that will resonate with you for a long time after its initial viewing, and it is all the more powerful for that.