From dark family secrets to child kidnappings, Denis Villeneuve has developed a knack for delving into some of the most unnerving mysteries of life and human nature. For his latest film "Sicario", the French-Canadian director continues in the same mould, turning his piercing gaze towards the war on drugs. And like his previous efforts, what he uncovers is another hard-hitting, sobering truth.
Set around the border between the United States and Mexico, "Sicario" follows one woman's perilous journey into the grimy world of the Mexican drug cartels and the agents sent to take them down. This woman is Kate (played by Emily Blunt), a shrewd FBI agent whose ability to ascertain the links in the drug chain has proved invaluable. After one crucial mission, her skills land her in the big leagues, dropped into the middle of enemy territory. Apprehensive but determined to carry out her job, she finds herself confronted with the harsh realities of a world she thought she already knew. But as the lines between good and evil become increasingly blurred, her disillusionment becomes as inevitable as the moral compromises she'll be forced to make if she wants to get out alive.
"Sicario" begins with a doozy of a scene - shot by an in-form Roger Deakins - tracking Kate and her fellow agents as they approach a crisis situation. With immediate intensity, Villeneuve keys us into the non-stop cycle of savagery associated with the drug war, with bodies piled up like window dressing to remind us of the human toll. And with a booming brass score to set the ominous tone, the ensuing film is as disturbing as any horror.
And like the great scary movies, Villeneuve's approach thrives on the element of surprise, enhanced by the film's realism. "Sicario" isn't the first film to take a frank, cynical look at the war on drugs, but the bleakness with which Villeneuve handles the narrative really lets the rot of moral decay fester. Indeed, we are forced to stare in aghast solidarity with Emily Blunt - subdued, but always engaged and engaging as Kate - as each scene reveals the shocking levels of human depravity on both sides of the fence. The screenplay is as incisive as its characters, particularly Josh Brolin's unperturbed Matt Graver and Benicio Del Toro's menacing Alejandro Gillick (channeling rugged Brad Pitt in one his best performances), who perceive the war as one with no end in sight.
And from the looks of it, Villenueve shares the same viewpoint. "Sicario" is an intentionally punishing watch, deliberate in its pacing, merciless in its brutality. Unlike most thrillers though, Villeneuve's style resists easy audience satisfaction, framing the narrative as part of an open-ended saga. But the sheer conviction in his storytelling - and his bleak outlook - makes for a damning, unforgettable statement.