Edge-of-seat assault on unbitten nails glimpses US war on drugs

Emily Blunt in Sicario  PA/Lionsgate
Emily Blunt in Sicario PA/Lionsgate

SICARIO (15, 121 mins) Thriller/Action. Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, Benicio Del Toro, Daniel Kaluuya, Jon Bernthal, Victor Garber, Raoul Trujillo. Director: Denis Villeneuve.

Released: October 8 (UK & Ireland)

French-Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve made an impressive English language debut in 2013 with the nihilistic thriller Prisoners starring Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal.

Before he takes charge of the sequel to Blade Runner, the talented director dazzles with this edge-of-seat assault on unbitten nails, glimpsing America’s war on drugs through the eyes of a ballsy FBI agent, who is naive about the full extent of her government’s covert activities.

Sicario, which translates as hitman in Spanish, is tautly paced and expertly scripted by Taylor Sheridan, who sidesteps glib solutions to a complex global epidemic.

Instead, he skilfully weaves together sinewy subplots involving morally flawed characters on both sides of the Mexican border, building up a richly detailed picture of the blurred lines between authorities and the traffickers.

Desperation drips like rivulets of sweat from every expertly crafted frame and Villeneuve heightens our discomfort with thrillingly orchestrated action set pieces including a mesmerising finale that exposes sins under the cover of darkness using night vision and thermal imaging cameras.

At the blackened heart of the film is a tour-de-force performance from British actress Emily Blunt, whose steely-nerved heroine might have to sacrifice more than her idealism in the crucible of machismo and political double-dealing.

She plays Kate Macer, part of the FBI’s Special Weapons and Tactics team, who are at the forefront of the war against drugs on American soil.

Flanked by her partner Reggie Wayne (Daniel Kaluuya), Kate storms a safe house and uncovers dozens of rotting corpses.

Soon after, a government agent named Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) asks Kate to join his top-secret task force, which intends to cripple the cartel fronted by Rafael (Raoul Trujillo) from the top down.

Haunted by the loss of men under her command, Kate willingly signs up and she heads to El Paso for her briefing, where she learns that she will be venturing onto Mexican soil.

“What’s our objective?” asks Kate.

“To dramatically overreact,” tartly replies Matt.

A Colombian former prosecutor (Benicio Del Toro) with a personal vendetta joins the task force.

Bullets fly and Kate’s conscience is spattered in blood as she witnesses first-hand shocking brutality in violation of the laws she vowed to uphold.

Sicario gradually tightens the screws on frayed nerves, reaching a crescendo with the extraction of an informant from Ciudad Juarez.

“Keep an eye out for the state police. They’re not always the good guys,” one of the characters tells Kate, stoking her paranoia and ours.

Blunt is terrific in a physically and emotionally demanding role, clashing with Brolin’s cold and pragmatic leader, who believes the means always justify an end that is favourable to US interests. Johann Johannsson’s atmospheric soundtrack pants and growls like a caged beast, creating a furious tempo that Villeneuve matches with flourishes of directorial brio.

RATING: 8.5/10