The tension begins as soon as the opening credits do: Jóhann Jóhannsson’s sickening, unnerving soundtrack crawls into your ears, drawing you closer to the screen before the picture even starts. The soundtrack is paired wonderfully with the cinemetography of Roger Deakins, who also worked with Jóhannsson and director Danis Villeneuve in the similarly tense and disturbing production Prisoners (2013). The opening scene finds Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) and her team infiltrating an Arizona home known to be connected to an infamous Mexican kidnapper. The scene is one of many that slowly paces through high-intensity situations, showing the gritty, grimy, violent world of policing the Mexican/US drug world.
As the film moves along, Macer, along with the viewers, are kept in the dark during the mission to take down the leader of a drug cartel. Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), leader of the mission and a DOA adviser, is an odd character who doesn’t play by the rules and brings an arrogant swagger to the position as he taunts and misleads Macer during a dangerous mission. Stranger still is the other man in charge, Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), who drifts along through the process, keeping to himself, but remarkably skilled.
The character’s relationship allows the film to take certain “plot twists” as plans are eventually revealed or stumbled upon, and it keeps viewers nervous and suspicious of the motives and procedures of not just the drug cartel members, but the supposed “good guys” on Macer’s team. Authoritative and unrelenting, Graver pushes Macer and us around, bullying us into thinking they are doing the right thing. Brolin plays a great two-sided character here, either sarcastically dismissing Macer’s objections, or getting serious and taking shit from no one. Jeffrey Donovan, of Burn Notice fame, has a similar role, though much smaller, that really reinforces the strange, twisted nature of these war veterans who are now tackling issues back home.
Blunt gives another unique performance as her career continues to evolve and shift from comedies and romances to sci-fi action films and dramas. As the lead performer, Blunt is almost unrecognizable as the nervous wreck that is Kate Macer as her character is thrown into a world she wasn’t prepared for, and has to fight against her own code of conduct to achieve her goal. Del Toro works wonders as well as a man on a mission, one not immediately obvious, that will do whatever it takes, inside or outside the law, to achieve it.
The film has several masterful scenes during specific operations that create a dreadful suspense as we bounce around in cars through crowded Mexican streets, or creep through unlit tunnels under the Mexican/US border. While frightening and serious, the war-experienced soldiers along side Macer casually celebrate and move-on after minutes of seat-gripping experiences for Macer and the viewers, distancing us from this mission designed to save lives. While keeping us in the dark, the film does hint at it’s true nature throughout, leaving the viewer to pick a side of the fence to stand on before the final act, when we are left to decide for ourselves: was the objective of the mission worth the unethical methods carried out to complete it?
Throughout the story, there is an emphasis on family: Macer is probed about her Marital and family status before joining the task force; we are shown the wife and child of a character intermittently throughout the film; cartel members and soldiers mention their families when their lives are on the line. The mission is created to stop families from being kidnapped and destroyed, and to avenge past families, yet families are destroyed in the process of the mission, only deepening our suspicions and hesitations.
The directing/cinematography/scoring trio of Villenueve, Deakins, and Jóhannsson have again created a dark, disturbing, and eerily realistic world view, this time of the world of Mexican drug cartels, and the agents who fight against it. A film that makes viewers question the motives and morals of it’s characters, Sicario crawls into your mind, and lingers long afterwards.