In a short scene mid-way through Sicario (2015), Josh Brolin’s grizzled CIA operative, Matt, tells Emily Blunt’s by-the-book FBI agent the current philosophy and thinking guiding the war against the Central and South American cartels; gangs that have turned parts of Mexico into no-go war zones and whose exceedingly violent activities and displays of fire power are flooding over Stateside. He informs her that, until the authorities convince people to stop smoking and snorting ‘that shit’, the US agencies are morally obliged to restore order by annihilating their opponents. It may look like out of control carnage (because it is), but there is an ideological and moral principle causing the rivers of blood to flow mighty. It’s the foundational, immovable bedrock, if you will.
Two foes at each other's throats until the last man standing is macho nonsense, to the point of nihilism, but the secret, possibly illegal, operations and alliances made with other enemies to outsmart and outgun a chosen quarry (here it's Mexican cartels) is a legacy of dodgy 1970s and 1980s secret war-making and political chicanery. So what's changed since then, Denis Villeneuve's film asks?Not much. Only now that the terror is pitching up on American soil more frequently has the insanity come home to roost. What was once just fucked up shit happening across the border is now explicitly a threat to the lives of US citizens. The cartels are also playing a no-holds-barred game and it inevitably becomes a dance of death between two foes, whose chances of conceding defeat are exactly nil. A stalemate is produced, with deadly skirmishes interrupting the comings and goings of the day. Along the roads and highways, headless corpses dangle upside down off bridges for all to see, and kids playing soccer on dusty scrub land, with jumpers for goal posts, only stop momentarily when gunfire rings out. Villeneuve also shows us this violent landscape from a high up vantage point, as the twilight sky rains pretty with streaks of red light. The glowing beauty is caused by heavy duty weaponry and mortars from afar. As Macer watches on, you'd be forgiven in thinking it was a fireworks display at a local fiesta.
So jaded and dog-tired is the world in which Sicario is set, during a battle at the US border, when two cars worth of hit men are wiped out illegally by Brolin’s squad, Blunt responds with dismay and threats. Somebody on the radio system informs Matt that it’ll be all over the news in the States. He retorts that it won’t even make the El Paso news, let alone national.
The team led by Brolin’s cocky but serious-minded operative are looking for a tunnel that runs from Nogales to the Texas side. Along for the ride and making sure the CIA operates within the limits and statutes of the law (now there's a joke), is Emily Blunt’s Macer (a strong performance by the British actress) and Benicio Del Toro’s adviser, Alejandro, whose own personal story unfolds parallel to the grander scheme of things.
With a thunderous musical score making Hans Zimmer's Inception arrangements sound like kazoo or a wasp trapped inside a can of Coke, a lean and muscular narrative that rolls out its nail-biting plot as a series of chaotic clusterfucks, one straight after the other, with characters hardly able to catch a breath, Denis Villeneuve has directed a formidable war picture super-charged with misery and horror. Matched to all this is Roger Deakins's typically outstanding cinematography. Wisely forgoing the voguish cliché for orange hues seen dozens of times in the last few years with movies set along the Tex-Mex hell-line or south of the border down, it seems incredible the British cinematographer has never won an Oscar. And this isn't even his best work! There is a mix of down-and-dirty, up-in-your-grill shooting and more complex, one hesitates to use the term 'slick', compositions and camera movements. The greatest shots are the close-ups. Whether holding tight on Emily Blunt's face as she heads into the shit, the camera juddering along with the car, or a shadowed hand gripping a knife as night falls in the background, such moments lend the film plenty of tingling power and encroaching sense of fear. The mood of the film grips hard, is constantly ominous, occasionally explosive. and the sortie across the border sequence can lay worthy claim to being one of the most electrifying and tense scenes of the year. The huge landscape shots of Mexican towns and cities, too, are packed with dread, as we grow accustomed to the idea the armies of the cartels are everywhere, hiding in plain sight. The sense of looking for assassins in the haystacks is palpable and scary. The US authorities will smoke them out by setting fire to all the haystacks. Sicario is released in the UK on 8th October