"Sicario" features men who play their cards so close to the vest, they're actually inside the vest. They change the rules of the game as they see fit. And they can see your hand.
Of course, these men work for the United States Department of Defense. They're tasked with bringing down a Mexican cartel that's smuggling dope over the Arizona border. We watch cocky, smirking mission head Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and a simmering Mexican expat known only as Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) as they work, never quite understanding their true method or motive until bullets fly and men are snatched for interrogation. Bodies pile up behind them.
Our point of view comes via protagonist Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), a hard-as-nails, principled FBI agent. She thinks she's seen it all, until she realizes she's seen nothing. The film opens with her leading a raid on a cartel house outside Phoenix. A shotgun blast nearly takes her out; the resulting hole in the wall reveals a body, and there are 41 more where that came from.
It's a grim scene, but her fortitude leads to her being recruited by Graver for his quasi-black-ops militia, a boys' club of in-betweeners free to subvert international law. They give Kate a Clarice Starling, "Silence of the Lambs" size-up and stare-down, a silent invitation to try to keep up with them. In one of "Sicario's" many tense sequences, they zip back and forth over the Mexican border in an intimidating line of black SUVs, and gun down some heavily armed thugs in broad daylight with hundreds of civilians witnessing. Kate watches, horrified at such cavalier disregard for procedure, wondering what the hell she's gotten herself into. Have they crossed the line? No, because the line has been moved.
"Sicario" is not the story of Kate becoming a hero. She's a pawn, a hanger-on, teetering on the edge of a precarious moral tightrope. Blunt's performance is subtle but substantive. We know little about the character beyond the replies she gives Graver during a blunt, tactless interview: She's divorced, no kids. She doesn't seem to have much else going on. Her apartment is the type of austere dwelling that workaholic, modern warriors in procedural films like this tend to live in. She seems but a few empty Chinese-food cartons away from full-blown depression.
Neither is the film a gung-ho exercise in violent entertainment. Director Denis Villenueve ("Prisoners") maintains a deliberate swiftness of pace, keeping the audience in Kate's boots, laces double-knotted. We've seen similar riffs on post-9/11 ethical erosion at the movies before, stories of shadowy government agencies sinking to the substandard levels of their enemies because there seems to be no other way to fight them. But few are as suggestive, or feel so plausible, or have Villenueve's assertive, confident camera. Or, for that matter, capitalize on a great Del Toro performance, his eyes slitted, voice a croak, fully committed to scaring the bejeezus out of us simply in the way he carries a large jug of water into an interrogation room.
Villenueve's approach matches the somewhat journalistic tone of Taylor Sheridan's script. Kate is primarily an observer of horrors, driven by a need to know what goes down under the radar, and Graver's shaky assertion that she's on the side of the righteous. She's a participant only when self-preservation is necessary, and those moments are intense and harrowing. The director also exercises significant visual flourish, shooting an evening desert raid on a breathtaking orange-and-cobalt sunset backdrop. He then shifts to the grainy contrast of the soldiers' night-vision goggles, and it resembles science fiction. Surely he intends to suggest that this story takes place in another world, beyond our reach, and possibly our comprehension.