Like a lot of movies that use unfamiliar or foreign words as titles, Sicario provides a definition right at the outset: It’s the Spanish word for “hit man,” we’re informed. On the surface level, that refers to a particular character in the film, whose mission involves summarily executing a cartel kingpin; every twist and turn of the narrative is expressly designed to bring this assassin one step closer to his target. And a white-knuckle journey it is, too—so relentlessly stressful that some viewers may require a deep massage afterward, having spent two solid hours with their muscles tensed. Yet the true victim in (and of) Sicario is its protagonist, who attempts to do the right thing at every turn and is rewarded by being systematically squeezed out of her own story. It’s an uncommonly bold gambit, expressly designed to frustrate people who want to see a strong woman deliver a righteous ass kicking. The progressivism here is instead rooted in futility and despair, which provides much more of a valuable shock to the system.
Initially, Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is in complete control, heading up a special FBI unit that deals with hostage situations. When her team raids a nondescript Arizona house and finds dozens of corpses sealed in the walls, however, she’s invited by an alleged Department Of Defense “consultant,” Matt (Josh Brolin), to join his inter-agency operation, which seeks to destabilize the Mexican cartel responsible for the massacre. Told she’ll be flying to El Paso, Kate is instead taken to Juárez, just across the border, for a highly dangerous extraction mission—just the first of numerous lies that Matt and his mysterious, unaffiliated associate, Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), will blithely toss at their new recruit, when they bother to brief her at all. Kate, meanwhile, struggles to maintain her trust in the chain of command, even as every ethical and honorable instinct she possesses—along with any semblance of due process—gets trampled and ignored. By the end, her choice has become starkly binary: play ball or commit suicide.
When Sicario premiered at Cannes in May, some critics dismissed it as just another drug-war yarn, comparing it unfavorably to Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic. (Look for up-to-date Narcos references this week.) That may well have been what first-time screenwriter Taylor Sheridan—an actor best known for playing Deputy Chief David Hale on Sons Of Anarchy—had in mind, but the final product turned out bigger and more resonant than that. Reportedly, there was pressure from suits to make Kate a male role, which the filmmakers wisely and stubbornly resisted. Ethan Hawke played a similarly befuddled idealist in Training Day, so it certainly could have worked. Sicario, however, is less inclined to provide a cathartic, climactic victory, and watching its intensely admirable heroine (superbly embodied by Blunt, who can seemingly do anything) gradually become all but irrelevant wouldn’t boil the blood in the same way were she a dude. (It’s likewise significant that Kate’s partner, played by Daniel Kaluuya, is African-American, and so marginalized that Matt can’t even remember his name.)
Another common complaint circulated about Sicario at Cannes is that it demonizes Mexico, and that’s likely to gain traction now, what with Donald Trump doing the same as a presidential candidate. Ironically, the film’s least effective element is its effort not to do so, by way of a minor Mexican “bad guy” who’s rather studiously humanized over the course of the movie. Still, at least the filmmakers tried, and were clearly aware of the problem.
In any case, subversive intentions would mean very little if Sicario failed to deliver what it promises, which is heart-pounding excitement. One can easily ignore the film’s ambitious subtext and enjoy it strictly on the basis of its terrific performances and nonstop intensity. Brolin, as the cocksure Matt (who wears flip-flops to top-secret meetings), is hilariously yet frighteningly callous, while Del Toro turns in his steeliest work since, well, Traffic. And while director Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Enemy) orchestrates multiple high-octane set pieces—the most harrowing is an ambush that takes place in a traffic jam at the U.S.-Mexico border crossing—he also manages to make ostensibly mundane establishing shots seem ominous. The tiny shadow of a plane, viewed from above as it heads into Mexico, carries almost as much weight as the muzzle of a gun placed under someone’s chin. In the end, though, it all comes down to Blunt’s Kate Macer, and her inability to fulfill the role she seems to have been assigned by long-standing Hollywood convention. This is not a failing. It’s the whole point.