Sicario ★★★★

Denis Villeneuve and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan have created a hell of a thriller, and I mean that in the most literal sense of the world. Sicario is like a series of increasing shocks to the nervous system, all at the service of depicting the modern drug war in as bleak of terms imaginable.

No one does lurking dread quite like Villeneuve, and the US-Mexican border of this picture is a modern Hell, with nights of tracer lights and explosions and days hanging bodies. Into this cesspool step three soldiers of the drug war played by Emily Blunt (an FBI agent), Josh Brolin (possibly CIA) and Benicio Del Toro (something far more shadowy).

The truly unsettling thing about this story is the deliberate, measured pace with which it reveals its cards. Blunt (and her partner, played with punchy concern by Daniel Kaluuya) joins the fight out of something like resistance to the horror encroaching into her turf. Yet she and us are totally in the dark as to the mission's objective. Her performance is stirring, somehow both emotionally open and totally guarded. She's matched beat-for-beat by Brolin's swaggering operative, who is so comically upbeat throughout that you're certain his intentions are vile. Brolin could play the role in his sleep, but he's making the effort.

Yet, it's Del Toro who steals the film (in more ways than one). I don't think I've never seen this level of focused, contained intensity from him. It's as though the fullness of mourning and rage of his country are contained in one man. The performance is something to behold.

My only qualm about Sicario is a strangely shoehorned subplot involving a Juarez cop and his family. The inclination to include a plot from that side of the border is a good one (otherwise there would be no significant Mexican characters), and the scenes involving the cop are effective. The issue is that they appear so infrequently in the first half, they seem to interrupt to the main plot rather than augmenting it. And without spoiling anything, the way this character eventually intersects with the other protagonists is so abrupt it hews close to dismissive.

I wish Villeneuve had the inkling and/or the directorial persistence to make this cop a larger component of Sicario. He's created a hellscape; more attention should be given to it's inhabitants.