Following the one-two punch of the gritty crime thriller "Prisoners" and the surreal doppelganger drama "Enemy," director Denis Villeneuve offers "Sicario," depicted in the trailers as a pulse-pounding journey through Mexico's most merciless terrain, streaked with blood. However, the film itself mingles the menacing and the mundane into a Western with a bleak criticism of America's war on drugs.
"Sicario" begins with a bang (or two) as FBI Agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) confidently leads a raid on a house in search of hostages, but instead finds walls insulated with 50-some corpses. Frustrated at being the clean-up crew to such scenes, Kate joins an elite yet shady government task force led my a flip flop-wearing, pot belly-baring Josh Brolin, and made all the more interesting by a suave but secretive Benicio Del Toro. Together, they mean to put a stop to a Mexican cartel that's bringing drugs and mayhem across the border.
It's strange. The opening sequence is lurid and dangerous, lingering on close-ups of corpses and setting up a film it only offers in spurts. The script by "Sons of Anarchy" star Taylor Sheridan delivers several showdowns, each tense and electrifying in its pacing and violence. But in between, there's much, much, much bickering about bureaucracy and the right way to bring down a criminal kingpin. Scenes where a steely Blunt stares down a smirking Brolin -- or a frustrated Blunt vents to her suspicious partner (Daniel Kaluuya in what should be a tipping-point role) -- are well-acted, but all too often are also dull or just confusing.
As Kate tries to figure out what Brolin's bloated bad boy is hiding from her, so too do we. But the audience is at the disadvantage of of trying to decipher all the lingo and agency acronyms rattled off in low grumbles. It could be argued that's by design, intended to keep viewers off balance so they might better relate to the similarly struggling Kate. But it's difficult for me to connect to a movie's journey when I'm only following its broadest strokes.
Still, I admire the risks Sheridan takes in the script, even when they didn't work; at least the film isn't predictable. However, this hard-headed approach clashes with the casting of Brolin and Del Toro, who are chafing to bring charisma and outlandishness to their rule-breaking lawmen. In contrast, Blunt delivers a pared-down performance, the kind rarely asked of an actress. Trained not to lose her cool, Agent Macer has her emotions in check, even in the most wretched circumstances. (Well, aside from the occasional violent outburst.) Villeneuve asking her to play the role so restrained is remarkable, and even makes narrative sense. But with a film this dry, I was thirsty for a little emotion to help me through some of the perplexing plot points. Weirdly, it's a drug dealer who gets the film's most moving moment.
The last unexpected element of Sheridan's script is how it abandons Kate, its supposed protagonist, for a prolonged portion of the final act, focusing instead on Del Toro's mysterious "consultant." Here, Villeneuve and Sheridan take several cues from the Coen brothers' "No Country For Old Men," splitting their narrative between two very different Western figures.
"Sicario's" New Mexico/Mexico setting stands in for the West of old, now flush with society but fracturing under a new brand of banditos. Blunt is the Tommy Lee Jones character, a by-the-book sheriff who believes rules are integral to achieving justice. Del Toro, meanwhile, is Javier Bardem's Anton Chigurh, a killer (the title's "sicario") who knows no rules and no mercy; he's dedicated only to results. When their methods collide, well, this town isn't big enough for the both of them, is it?
Underlining the film's similarity is the brilliant cinematography and awe-striking atmosphere created by Roger Deakins, the 12-time Oscar-nominated director of photography. A living legend, he brings color and life into even the script's blandest moments, making "Sicario" a stylistic sibling to his "No Country For Old Men." Yet while "Sicario" invites the comparison, the film also suffers for it, being not nearly as well-paced, entertaining or moving as its apparent inspiration.
All in all, "Sicario" is an intriguing movie, laced with a scathing political message, gorgeously shot, and guided by strong performances. However, its marketing may make you believe it's a mainstream action flick. It's most definitely not.
Villeneuve has shown once more how little interest he has in appealing to the commercial palate. And that's fine, even arguably admirable. But it certainly won't be to everyone's tastes.
"Sicario" opens Friday in select theaters and Oct. 2 nationwide.