Films depicting darkness and corruption on both sides of the law have been done to death over the past few decades, but rare is it when such hefty material is placed into the right hands. When it comes to French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve, anything placed into his hands is bound to be spun into cinematic gold, and "Sicario" is no exception. Villeneuve's new crime drama is another impressive entry in his already-impressive filmography, which includes the feverishly intense "Prisoners" and the artistically creepy "Enemy." This time around, Villeneuve sets his sights on a story with a larger and more objective scope, yet he expertly retains that subjective element which made his previous films so utterly compelling. The end result is neither groundbreaking nor memorable in any way, but an excellent example of cinema in its purest form.
Idealistic FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is recruited by the government to travel across the border between the United States and Mexico and aid in a joint task force to track down and capture a powerful drug lord affiliated with the Mexican cartel. Accompanied by Alejandro Gillick (Benicio Del Toro), a shady agent operating on either side of the border, and task force leader Matt Graves (Josh Brolin), Kate soon realizes she is being kept in the dark about the true purpose of the mission at hand and begins to question the legality of the operation, as well the truth behind Alejandro's motives.
The plot of "Sicario" doesn't pack any dramatic punches that will leave viewers with their mouths open in shock, but this is exactly what sets the film apart from others like it. Unlike most directors, Villeneuve does not succumb to the usual antics of the genre, avoiding extended gun fights that result in major characters getting hurt or killed. Sure the film has its fair share of guns blazing and blood splattering across walls and glass, but the execution of each action set-piece is absolutely brilliant, as Villeneuve pays more attention to characters' experiences rather than the violence itself.
A lot of credit for the film's effectiveness should be given to veteran cinematographer Roger Deakins, who previously collaborated with Villeneuve on "Prisoners" and scored and Oscar nomination for his work. Deakin effortlessly creates more Oscar-worthy imagery here, using birds-eye-view, wide angles, real nighttime lighting, infrared and night-vision to great effect. What is show here makes up for the film's slow pacing, which is deliberately made so by Villeneuve in order to rack up all the tension he can get from audiences by the time "Sicario" reaches its hard-boiled climax.
Though the film will be duly noted for its grand-scale shots and slow-burn intensity, the secret behind these successful efforts lies in Villeneuve's respect for character development and subjective storytelling. Aside from a few scenes focusing on Alejandro, the audience is kept in Kate's headspace for the majority of the picture. Not much is revealed until the end of course, which is bad news for Kate, but good news for the audience, though it may not always feel that way. Along the way, some viewers will question whether or not "Sicario" is really worth the price of admission, but by the time the credits roll, they may be hard-pressed to find any faults within the film.
Other strengths that can be found on the film's surface are its expert editing, sound mixing, and deep score Jóhann Jóhannsson. It also goes without saying that "Sicario" benefits from amazingly subtle work from its three leads. Blunt is at her very best here, Del Toro is the most compelling he's been in years, and Brolin seems to be enjoying himself just a much as his character does at times. If not for their stellar work, coupled with Villeneuve's taut direction, "Sicario" may well have been just another run-of-the-mill crime drama instead of the masterful cinematic experience it turned out to be.