“Sicario” begins with a relatively routine SWAT team break-­in. I say “relatively” because it could be considered fairly tame when compared to some of the film’s later altercations. But it definitely lets you know up front that this outstanding thriller is not for the faint of heart.

FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) and her colleague Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya) uncover a drug cartel hideout near the U.S.­-Mexico border in Arizona. Bodies line the insides of walls, along with another horrific surprise that makes the gruesome experience tough to forget. When Kate takes a position on a joint task force to find the drug lord responsible, she believes the operation will follow all official protocol. As the pursuit continues, she realizes it’s anything but official.

Task force leader Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) is a military iconoclast,­ someone who rarely plays it safe, and appears far too calm about the task. His right-hand man is Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), a former cartel member and an expert in the art of brutal interrogation. Together Alejandro and Graver keep Kate and the audience in the dark about the specifics of the mission until everything is revealed in a brilliant point ­of­ view shift in the film’s final reel.

I believe Emily Blunt has secured an Oscar nomination with this role, and I wouldn’t be surprised if she won. She delivers a highly nuanced performance because her character is so out of her depth. She succeeds at bringing a certain energy and weight to Kate’s supreme confidence while at the same time never being the smartest person in the room.

Benicio Del Toro as Alejandro is also deserving of recognition. His wry humor and almost devilish vengeance within the cartel underbelly is intimidating and downright scary at points.

However, neither of these performances would have been possible without the marriage of Denis Villeneuve’s precise direction and Taylor Sheridan’s timely script. Sheridan’s subtle thoughtfulness on his subject matter allows Villeneuve’s humanitarian streak some elbow room, but not so much that it becomes distracting as it did in some of his previous films. But since Kate is the avatar for the audience, great storytelling emerges from her confusion because we’re just as interested in the details of the plot as she is.

Veteran cinematographer Roger Deakins’ top-notch camera work adds to the storytelling. A long flyover above Juárez gives us a perfectly cinematic sense of place. Later, the skillful use of long shots during crucial confrontations shows us how alone the idealistic Kate really is in a male­-dominated group that doesn’t play by the rules. In the final action sequence, Deakins puts night­ vision and film negative to excellent use.

The movie concludes with a few terrific silent moments that show us both sides of what the war on drugs at the border has become. The subtlety of these moments allows us to view “Sicario” as either a grand statement or an exceptional movie. But as “Sicario” shows us throughout its two-hour running time, it’s not too much to ask for both.


“Sicario” = 5/5


“Sicario” is now playing in theaters nationwide.


(Rated R for strong violence, grisly images and language)