Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is an FBI agent on the trail of the Mexican drugs cartels in Arizona, and she has joined a SWAT team to raid this house in the suburbs where they know criminals are hiding out. The team announces its presence to them by smashing through one of the walls in a truck, and the agents follow, Kate with her partner Reggie Wayne (Daniel Kaluuya) close at hand, and on entering one of the rooms alone she is almost shot dead by a gangster, managing to get a couple of bullets into the man, killing him before he can kill her. As she gathers her thoughts, Reggie rushes in to check if she is all right, and it is then they notice the hole in the wall left by the gangster's shot – there is something in there. Tearing at the plaster, they uncover a couple of bodies, and quickly realise the extent of death here.
Sicario arrived hot on the heels of the well-regarded documentary Cartel Land, which detailed the follies of American efforts to stop the Mexican criminal gangs that had taken over south of the border, though this was criticised for portraying an unrealistically illegal operation in comparison. It should of course be noted Sicario was not a documentary, it was a thriller containing suspense sequences and bursts of action, but there were similarities, most blatantly that sense of futility in the face of overwhelming degrees of crime, since as the Josh Brolin character observed, there were twenty percent of Americans very happy to indulge in drug-taking, and that was a very significant amount.
An amount of potential profit, that was, and with the world's television watchers still basking in the glow of the final series of Breaking Bad there was an audience now fascinated in the politics of managing the cartels, or indeed failing to manage them, so Sicario tapped into that interest with a lot less humour and irony, and a lot more ominous atmosphere, as if to tell the audience, sure, you've been watching this play out from the safety of your television screens at home, but real lives were being ruined and even ended every day because of this situation, which could almost be termed a crisis if the portrayal here was anything to go by. Not that any solutions were forthcoming from Taylor Sheridan's screenplay.
Director Denis Villeneuve was wont to describe his film as a poem of sorts, and it was true with the expert combination of Roger Deakins' arresting (no pun intended) cinematography and Jóhan Jóhansson's pulsing menace of a soundtrack there was much to appreciate when it came to drinking in a rich mood of paranoia and threat. But the plot perhaps was not so well held up to scrutiny, as the law enforcers were depicted as little better than a different criminal gang, it's just that they happened to be on our side, so poor Kate was buffeted around the two hours of running time like some kind of sap rather than a proper sleuth, forever playing catch up with the men who are supposed to be her colleagues but more often than not manipulating her naivety for their mission's gain.
Not that Blunt played Kate as a dummy, she was put across as someone not in full possession of the facts, as we in the audience were, so she became our surrogate in this minefield. In that way she was like Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty, another isolated woman negotiating her path through a world of violent men, and Blunt certainly committed to the role, dressing down and refusing to glamorise her appearance, which at least contributed to the authentic feeling of taking its subject matter seriously, both the actress and the character. But matching her, and nearly stealing the movie from under her nose was the understated Benicio Del Toro, who played a shadowy agent of some presence in the anti-cartel force, deliberately given very little explanation which added to the attraction the viewer felt to understand his backstory. When we do discover precisely what he has been up to, it was tempting to acknowledge that Kate had not been the main character at all: Del Toro's was, and the actor grew in stature as the threads were drawn together for a finale apparently designed to have you ponder if anyone in authority wasn't corrupt. So some credibility issues thanks to fashionable disillusionment, but that got under your skin nonetheless.