“You are not a wolf”, imparts enigmatic operative Alejandro to relatively green FBI agent Kate Macer, as if she didn’t already know. “Sicario” is composed of wolves, and the precarious realm in which they exist requires a certain moral flexibility that Macer doesn’t seem to possess.
After discovering dozens of corpses encapsulated in the walls of an Arizona drug den during a hostage retrieval mission, door-kicker Macer (Emily Blunt) is selected to join an elite task force led by smug black-ops figure Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) who’s been given carte blanche by ambiguous governmental powers to fight (but really just manage) the war on drugs. The reason for Kate’s recruitment is initially a mystery, but in addition to putting the hurt on a powerful Mexican cartel, it affords her the opportunity to bring justice to the men responsible for the deaths of two of her teammates.
Also foggy is the job description of Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), a “consultant” who specializes in cartel activity. He arrives dressed for a business meeting in Escobar-era Medellin, and seems to be calling a lot of the shots, sometimes literally. After the extraction of a cartel member from Juárez ends in a freeway shootout just south of the border, it’s evident that Brolin’s unit is operating independently of the rulebook. “They won’t even make the papers in El Paso”, he says nonchalantly of the trail of dead gang-bangers littering the road in their wake.
As the moral compass for “Sicario” (cartel slang for hitman), Blunt’s character is more pawn than facilitator. When she and her FBI partner, lawyer-turned-fed Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya), push for answers after Graver and Alejandro wrangle busloads of undocumented immigrants for an unusual line of questioning, the answer seems logical, if not entirely legal: they are to shake the nest enough for the cartel to call a high-ranking stateside member named Manuel Diaz (Bernardo P. Saracino) back to Mexico, where they can track him to El Jefe and do their thing. “To find him would be like discovering a vaccine”, Alejandro explains to Kate, as if justifying the measures they’re about to take to get there.
Much of “Sicario” takes place in Juárez, where dismembered bodies hang from underpasses and gun shots ring out during morning soccer games (a depiction so gruesome it has been met with lawsuit plans by the city’s mayor). The film bears shades of “True Detective”, “Zero Dark Thirty” and the Pablo Escobar chronicle “Narcos”, masterfully combined in a nightmarish fugue of corruption and warfare by director Denis Villenueve (from a script by first-timer Taylor Sheridan), and emerging as hellish reality through the lens of legendary DP Roger Deakins (“Unbroken”). After leaving us rattled with “Prisoners”, it isn’t enough for Villeneuve to turn in just another tightly wound thriller: “Sicario” is also a meticulously crafted procedural, an enthralling drama and a brutal commentary on a hot-button issue.