That’s a major part of what makes SICARIO, the latest from Denis Villeneuve, the director behind Enemy and Prisoners, a true Villeneuve experience. Tension starts to coil in your stomach, your heartbeat slows, then quickens as your breath gets caught in your throat. The droning score from Jóhann Jóhannsson only amps up the tension provided by the careful composition of suspense in the film proper. I have never been more terrified of a single place on Earth than I was during each excursion into Juarez, Mexico.
The story here involves an FBI tactician played by Emily Blunt, who specializes in kidnappings. After a routine raid in Arizona reveals a grotesque site of cartel activity and depravity, she is roped into accompanying a team of elite military agents over the border into Mexico to “shake the tree” of the cartels and provoke some chaos. Through the film, our protagonist struggles to balance by-the-book activities with surviving in an oppressively male-oriented society of violence, strong-arm tactics, and drug-fueled paranoia with varying rates of success.
This cast is fantastic. Emily Blunt makes a solid impression as our undermined protagonist, Josh Brolin is great as the fast-talking recruiter, it’s nice to see Victor Garber in things again, Jon Bernthal is great in a crucial, menacing scene, and then, there’s Benicio del Toro.
Benicio is the true star of the film. At first appearing burnt out and barely alive, his Alejandro rumbles with a rage that hasn’t been seen onscreen since the days of yore when Reb Brown was still active. He’s part Splinter Cell, part interrogation specialist, and part Doberman Pinscher. I can’t believe he was acting, as I was sure he was just being Benicio: raw and intimidating, to put it mildly.
I have a single issue with the film in that it sets up a character to play a role later which feels almost shoe-horned in, a la Syriana, but it didn’t ruin the film. I just felt it gave a minor character more screen time than necessary for the machinations of the storytelling.
SICARIO is a fascinating cross between a war film, a south-of-the-border western, and the grittiest police procedural ever made. There are no real good guys or bad guys in this world, everyone has a bit of both in them. This movie is not for everyone. If you as viewers cannot stomach chilling, HARD-R content such as torture and absurd levels of tension, I would recommend you check out something else, The Martian, for instance.
But if you’re willing to take a chance and tunnel down the cartel equivalent of a rabbit-hole, you’ll be rewarded with one of the best dramas of the year.