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Film review: Sicario, Denis Villeneuve’s gripping drug war thriller, is close to perfect

Emily Blunt leads a superb cast in this gripping look at degradation, violence and corruption

PUBLISHED : Monday, 12 October, 2015, 12:01pm
UPDATED : Monday, 12 October, 2015, 2:30pm

This taut story of a narcotics operation on the border between the US and Mexico is a textbook piece of thriller filmmaking. The script is labyrinthine and credible, the locations look realistic, and the acting is uniformly superb. Precision directing by Canadian-born Denis Villeneuve (Incendies, Prisoners) ensures that Sicario is an exciting watch from start to finish.

Those living outside  the Americas may be surprised to learn that parts of Mexico have become lawless zones effectively ruled by warring drug lords who terrorise the population with rape, beheadings and all sorts of inhuman crimes. Villeneuve manages to depict this everyday brutality as a backdrop without exploiting it for cheap shocks. Instead of trying to disgust viewers, he carefully uses the degradation to draw the audience further into the  minds of the agents battling the drug lords.

Sicario begins when narcotics agent Kate  (Emily Blunt)  is asked to volunteer for a secret anti-drugs squad in El Paso, on the US side of the  border. The swashbuckling operations leader Matt (Josh Brolin) keeps her in the dark about what’s going on, but she quickly realises that the squad is making illegal crossings into Mexico. The presence of Mexican prosecutor Alejandro  (Benicio Del Toro) on the team further complicates the issue. Kate’s a stickler for protocol – but are the squad’s activities justifiable in the name of the greater good?

The movie would have been perfect but for a slight flaw – it’s never made clear why Kate would rather uphold the law than get the bad guys. But Blunt still manages to play a cold character with chiaroscuro.  Del Toro, meanwhile, is an exercise in calm and calculated revenge. Sicario is not as brutal as Ridley Scott’s The Counsellor  – which was a no-holds-barred look at Mexico’s human carnage – but this approach allows the storyline to shine. The result is gripping.

Sicario opens on Oct 15