(Denis Villeneuve, 2015)
When a really good genre film comes along, we realise just how crap and childish most genre cinema truly is. Sicario is an outstanding genre film; tense, beautifully made, lovely to look at (Roger Deakins!), and engaged in geopolitical reality without ever becoming dull.
We see most of the story through the eyes of FBI Agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt, superbly hollow-eyed and traumatised throughout) after the discovery of dozens of corpses in the walls of a Phoenix house. That is the opening scene: an intensely charged suspense sequence as Macer's team enter the house and encounter some resistance, discover the corpses and trigger a booby-trap. Here the tone for the film is set; quiet, patient, horribly gripping and visually acute, Villeneuve using a magisterial style reminiscent of mid-period Michael Mann to pin this world to the screen.
Macer is recruited to an inter-agency task force and is led to believe she will be working with the DEA. But quickly she realises that Matt (Josh Brolin, just the right combination of jocularity, smug knowingness and chilling calculation) is a CIA agent, and that the mysterious Colombian Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro, showing that all-too rarely-glimpsed movie star charisma of his) may be something altogether worse. Together with a team of Delta Force soldiers they travel in a convoy into Juarez in Mexico to extradite a Drug Baron, hoping to draw out the mysterious lord of his cartel. But Macer is shocked by just how off-reservation and illegal their activities are, and struggles to justify her involvement to herself and her partner Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya), all the while getting more emotionally involved with the case.
Sicario is provocative in its structure. While the first two acts are firmly Blunt's in that they seem to take her physical and moral viewpoint , the last act shifts and suddenly Alejandro is controlling the narrative, and the certainties of Macer's views on the drug war melt away. Matt complicates this throughout. Though unlikable, he seems an arch-pragmatist, focused on results and nothing else, dismissing all moral considerations entirely. Then we have Reggie, dismissed by Matt as simply a "lawyer", who doesn't trust any of them and only wants to ensure his partner is ok.
The story revolves around a series of tremendous set-pieces; most notably the Juarez run, which erupts into a firefight at the border. Jóhann Jóhannsonn's score is at its subtle best here. It rejects melody, instead rising up like a murky cloud of ambient noise, all moans and shivers, employing the dread that hangs in the air of the film. and which culminates in the mission Alejandro was engaged in all along.
This is a great genre film; cynical, sharp and exhilarating, it is also utterly satisfying.