After a long summer of blockbuster bloat, Denis Villanueve’s scorching “Sicario” is almost enough to make you believe in Hollywood again. The film tracks drug cartel violence along the Arizona and Texas borders and is anchored by three tremendous performances.
FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) makes a grisly discovery in the opening sequence but recovers to join a special ops team because “she’s a thumper.” She’s paired with Matt Graver (Josh Brolin, in easily his best role since “No Country for Old Men”). With a wry smile, he explains his job as a Department of Defense operator: “to dramatically overreact.”
Somewhere in the shadows is Graver’s partner Alejandro (Benicio del Toro, in a great update on his Oscar-winning performance in “Traffic”). Though he’s described as a “bird dog,” Alejandro has gone full lobo, ceaselessly chasing cartel linchpin El Verdugo: “To find him would be like discovering a vaccine.”
These uneasy amigos go hunting in Ciudad Juárez, a place that looks just as frightening as it reads in Roberto Bolaño’s “2666,” a great companion piece to this film. In a series of overhead shots, the sere hills around the city resemble skulls screaming under the earth, a seething beast that sucks citizens into shallow graves. When Kate hits the streets her lip trembles ever so slightly before she steels herself to the soundtrack of submachine guns.
The remarkable land- and cityscapes come courtesy of Roger Deakins, a director of photography who deserves billing as high as most directors (he is a dominant aesthetic force in Villanueve and the Coen Brothers’ recent films).
He lenses the indelible image in cinema from 2015: a long shot held for a long time of silhouetted soldiers descending into the blackness beneath a fireball sunset. The film shows extra-governmental black sites and then even blacker sites, tunnels leading to the heart of darkness.
All of this might frustrate your desire for clear narrative purpose or, as Kate puts it, “some semblance of procedure.” Alejandro cryptically assures her, “in the end you will understand.” And she does—in this fight there are no laws, only heavy weaponry and frail bodies. Even the click of a pen begins to sound like a gun cocking.
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“Sicario” is showing at the Sonoma 9 Cinemas. Rated R. Running time 2:01. Visit www.cinemawest.com.