‘Sicario’ leaves you wondering about the war on drugs

Updated Oct 01, 2015

Has there ever been a more useless, violent, tragically corrupting policy than the U.S. war on drugs? That’s the question you’ll be asking yourself after watching “Sicario,” the new movie from Canadian director Denis Villeneuve.

With its shifting points of view, “Sicario” doesn’t preach. But it will make you think.

As Kate Macer, Emily Blunt stars as an FBI agent who has to confront the moral ambiguities and horrors of becoming involved in an effort to take out the leader of a Mexican drug cartel.

It opens with Macer’s FBI team discovering a house in Chandler, Ariz., where dozens of bodies have been sealed up behind drywall. It’s a grisly scene, and it shakes Macer to the core, so much so that she agrees to join a task force formed to track down the cartel leader responsible for the crime.

Alejandro (Benicio del Toro) and Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) are the task force’s two main men. Alejandro looks like he’s hiding something, and Macer is immediately suspicious. With Texas braggadocio, Graver jokes and acts like he can do whatever he wants in the pursuit of the cartel leader. And Macer suspects Graver is a CIA agent but doesn’t know for sure.

The first task is to get to the local cartel leader in Arizona. The aim is to stage a series of attacks on his drug trade and make him return to Mexico to discuss the matter with his leader — the ultimate prize of the task force.

Along the way, Villeneuve stages intense scenes of the task force being stopped in traffic along a border highway, with cartel gunmen on either side of them. He and cinematographer Roger Deakins also use thermal imaging, reminiscent of the climactic sequence in “Silence of the Lambs,” when filming a scene of the task force headed through a cartel tunnel under the border.

But the heart of the movie lies in the tension between Blunt’s Macer and del Toro’s Alejandro. Macer doesn’t understand Alejandro’s motivation, but she begins to understand that he’s a sicario — a term for a hitman.

And as an FBI agent, she has to play by the rules — having to account for every bullet she fires. In contrast, Alejandro (who has no last name) and Graver are willing to spray bullets all over the place.

Through perspective, Villeneuve is exploring the war on drugs — and through Macer’s character, he’s questioning American tactics. After seeing the carnage in the early part of the film, many viewers will take the side of Alejandro and Graver. But Villeneuve doesn’t make such a position easy to maintain.

It’ll be interesting to see how audiences respond. “Sicario” probably won’t be a box-office hit, but it should make significant inroads in the arthouse market — and on the awards circuit.

The screenplay is by Taylor Sheridan, who’s well-known as Deputy Chief David Hale on the FX TV series “Sons of Anarchy.” But the real star here is the long-overlooked cinematographer, Deakins, who has been nominated 12 times for an Oscar but never won. Maybe “Sicario” will bring him a lucky 13th nomination — and victory.

If not, he’ll probably have another chance with “Blade Runner 2,” starring Harrison Ford and Ryan Gosling. Villeneuve will direct the sequel, which doesn’t have a release date, and Deakins will again be the cinematographer. They’re a good team.