2015, R, 121 min. Directed by Denis Villeneuve. Starring Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin, Victor Garber, Jon Bernthal, Daniel Kaluuya, Jeffrey Donovan, Raoul Trujillo, Julio Cedillo, Bernardo Saracino.

REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Oct. 2, 2015

Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve has become one of the world’s top specialists in making taut, morally ambiguous thrillers, as he ably demonstrated in his biggest commercial success, 2013’s Prisoners. And the drug wars between the cartels and government forces on both sides of the border between the U.S. and Mexico certainly provide plenty of appalling real-life material from which to fashion a mesmerizing film story. At times recalling Traffic in the way it casts a wide net around the variety of players with personal interests in this high-stakes game of cat and mouse, Sicario is much more pessimistic in its viewpoint that skirmishes can be won or lost, but the war will rage on forever.

The tense raid that opens the movie doesn’t start out as part of the drug war, although when it is discovered in the horrifying aftermath that scores of corpses are stacked up between layers of drywall in the booby-trapped Arizona house under siege, it’s clear that the cartel’s reach is far and wide. Kate Macer (Blunt), the head of the FBI kidnapping-rescue unit conducting the raid, loses two men in the rush, and becomes determined to avenge their deaths. Subsequently, Kate is offered a position with a somewhat shadowy team of agents formed from an alphabet soup of coordinating agencies: DEA, DOD, FBI – it’s never quite clear for whom the team’s leader, Matt Graver (Brolin), works. Also on the team is surname-less Alejandro (Del Toro), a wily marksman and cryptic mentor whose credentials remain mysterious. Blunt’s wide-eyed education as Kate contrasts nicely with Del Toro’s heavy-lidded cipher Alejandro.

These performances are all first-rate and often convey more by what is not said than what is. Roger Deakins’ sharp cinematography captures both the vivid outlines cast by the blazing Mexican sun and the murky, night-vision interiors of the frightening drug tunnels. A ride through Ciudad Juarez showing dead bodies swinging from bridges and severed heads lined up like shamanistic warnings evokes some of that same sense of impending dread we feel as Capt. Willard travels up the Mekong River in search of Col. Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. Joe Walker edits the film for maximum tension, and composer Jóhan Jóhannsson’s score lends the film a sense of perpetual menace. Yet the screenplay by first-timer Taylor Sheridan seems a bit slack, even as it successfully keeps the viewer guessing about each character’s motivations and true nature. Sometimes, segments can feel like discrete episodes rather than integral tentacles. Sicario is at its best when its borderlines are fluid and indistinct.

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Sicario, Denis Villeneuve, Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin, Victor Garber, Jon Bernthal, Daniel Kaluuya, Jeffrey Donovan, Raoul Trujillo, Julio Cedillo, Bernardo Saracino

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