Sicario opens on a horror show. We follow Kate Mercer (Emily Blunt), an FBI agent leading a steadfast kidnap-response team into a suburban house. Something is off, wrong, and it isn’t long before the team discovers dozens of upright corpses decomposing behind the drywall. In every room, in every hallway they are unrecognizable, wrapped in plastic, the sight and stench forcing agents to vomit in the desert yard. It’s a visceral moment, a sequence that sets the tone of director Denis Villeneuve’s (Prisoners, Incendies) latest feel-bad nightmare. We have trespassed into uncomfortable terrain with Kate as our proxy, less protagonist than the film’s wary, conflicted moral center.
Kate and her partner Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya) are soon drafted onto a special task force headed by Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), a man who we understand as having real power: he’s the sort who can wear flip-flops to meetings with high level government suits and have no one bat an eye. His answers are no answers, and Kate is never quite sure what it is she’s signed on to do with this task force built, we’re told, to “stir the pot.” Alongside Matt, the force works with the even more mysterious Alejandro (Benicio del Toro), a vigilante figure with unclear intentions.
Like most of Villeneuve’s filmography thus far, Sicario exists almost wholly within a moral grey area. Kate is our filter, a character we look to to tell us our responses are appropriate, that what is happening is indeed strange or unconventional or horrific. She is subjected to an ugliness that forces us to come face to face with the complications of the drug trade, with how extensive its reach is, how impossible it is to solve a problem that – on the surface – seems black and white. Our sense of what is just begins to blend with our judgment of what is evil. Characters and events are always complicated, situations disturb, and the film becomes almost oppressive – it condemns, it encourages, it throws its hands up and storms out.
As I’m way behind in getting around to writing about the film, much has been made since that initial screening of the point of view shift that happens in the final section of the film. It’s problematic in some ways, expected in others. Sicario – like other Villeneuve films – is a series of outstanding, visually arresting sequences that often feel glued together by less interesting, more tepidly talky material. True, this could be a working definition for most films, but in his case it seems especially so. There are a handful of sequences throughout Sicario that feel instantly classic. There is a stark beauty in the madness, and the quality of the images makes the bad taste of what they amount to more palatable. That the film is seems to rely so heavily on set-piece sequences, it is somehow not surprising that as we enter further into the void, as we become further implicated in our confused sense of enjoying what we are seeing, that we cannot remain by Kate’s side in the final chapters. We have to leave, we have to see something else, we have to understand that the place of the good-cop does not exist in this world. What we’re left with is something cruel, something terrible., and we don’t know where we are anymore, or what the film wants us to feel.
There may be two movies here, smashed together and blurred by necessity, but neither is simple and both are complete. There are no truly satisfying conclusions to the problems presented on screen. We are shown what we are shown and asked to consider the various pieces alongside their real life implication. So it is that the movie is not one where heroes sweep in to clean up the messes we aren't aware exist. That's not Sicario's scene. It's just here to show you some of the grounds for a battle as the war rages on.