Sicario opens with the same consumed, self-absorbed group of FBI agents encased in tension, led by Kate Macy (Emily Blunt) on their way to a kidnapping raid. Macy is an idealistic FBI agent who is enlisted to aid in the escalating war on drugs in a special task force led by Matt Graver (Josh Brolin). Initially volunteering herself in a desire to make a difference, Macy finds herself traversing a devolving nubilous middle ground of morals. Sicario is as much about Macy as it is about the opening scene: the overhead shots showing a complex and involving infrastructure of homes that symbolizes the immensity and futility of their efforts, and the juxtaposition of FBI agents bursting out of a van in an Arizona suburb with a neighborhood woman on a walk in the background to emphasize the familiarity of violence.
There's no denying the sheer talent of Emily Blunt and Benicio Del Toro, who plays Alejandro, a consultant with a shadowed past. Del Toro's existing lines are a mere 10% of what was originally in the script, but what was stripped away is made up for in spades by his weighted actions and the brooding mysterious menace he creates with the power of his acting. Del Toro deserves an Oscar nom for his performance, hands down. However, the true superstars here are director Denis Villeneuve and cinematographer Roger Deakins.
Villeneuve is no stranger to creating a history behind his characters who show more than they tell. This is his best work to date, eclipsing even Prisoners. From the beginning, we feel a distance from Macy even when we try to draw close to the protagonist of the story. Villeneuve prevents us from getting intimate by obscuring her reflection by fog in the glass and putting literal curtains between her and the audience. Her apartment is inscrutable, seeming more like a rented motel room than an actual home. There's a sterile light in all the shots of her at home, complete with empty hangers in the closet that contrasts sharply with scenes that immediately follow of a warmly lit home in a supposed rundown Mexican household. Macy has a polished look, almost as if she's just powdered her nose, that puts her at odds with the others around her covered in dust, sweat, and rumpled suits. She's separate from everyone around her, even unable to follow the government task force when they speak in Spanish, having to ask her partner whether he's "getting any of this". There's something to Villeneuve's decision to return repeatedly to her seemingly innocuous yet persistent dependence on smoking--an ironical reference to her inability to see her own addiction that echoes the fight she's involved in.
Deakins is one of the best living cinematographers and Sicario is no slump work of his. There are of course, evanescently glorious nightscapes where even gunfire is rendered as a performing art show. Deakins' true genius in this movie is the coloring, however. He was reportedly influenced by photographer Alex Webb, and there's a quality to his vision that renders an authenticity to Villeneuve's craft. Furthermore, his use of blue tones to focus on Macy's isolation is particularly lovely to behold.
Not to be forgotten, Jóhann Jóhannsson is the film composer and he writes music as if for a horror movie, effectively increasing tension and the unease the audience feels at an impending danger they can't predict. When there's an absence of music, it increase our anxiety close to a fever pitch, letting the roar of silence suffocate us along with the characters.
Sicario is one of the best films of the year thus far, and not just for the skills of its ensemble but because of the trust Villeneuve gives his audience in not feeding everything to us. For its subject matter, it never feels as if the violence or grit is gratuitously contrived. Villeneuve has succeeded in giving us a glimpse at a world that is as opaque as his characters. We can neither condone nor dismiss the actions portrayed. He avoids the apathy we assume when being preached at, and thus Sicario inevitably remains with you long after its potent ending.