With one leading Republican nominee currently bloviating about building a "giant wall" between the US and Mexico, Sicario feels like a timely critique of America's ruinous drug wars. It's set in an area of Texas which has always felt extra-legal, locked in an eternal schism between immigrants and rednecks, between cartel drug traffickers and cowboy vigilantes.
FBI agent Kate (Emily Blunt) finds herself thrust into this Wild West, ostensibly to “consult” on a Department of Defense cross-agency operation. But things seem awry from the start, and Kate grows increasingly mistrustful of flip-flop wearing Texan Matt (Josh Brolin) and enigmatic Colombian Alejandro (a simmering Benicio Del Toro), who take a cavalier approach to the rule of law in their hunt for a cartel king.
In truth, these 'web of conspiracy' plots are hardly strangers to cinema, and while Kate grows increasingly shocked at the corruption of her superiors, it's difficult to share her surprise. Still, while the structure might be familiar, the execution is fiercely fresh. Denis Villeneuve knows how to create tension with devastating precision and stunning visual swagger; a disastrous border crossing – featuring the most nightmarish traffic jam imaginable – is a standout sequence.
Villeneuve's canny ability to surround himself with outstanding collaborators pays dividends too – credit must go to Jóhan Jóhannson's deeply disturbing, ear-smothering score, and Roger Deakins' crisp, hauntingly beautiful cinematography. (Surely Deakins' Oscarlessness will soon be remedied?)
After the twisty weirdness of Enemy and Prisoners, Sicario represents Villeneuve’s most grounded effort so far – yet through all his works runs an intoxicating sense of paranoia and dread, Hitchcock with a flourish of Fincher. On this strength, his upcoming Blade Runner sequel looks to be very promising indeed.