The opening scene sets the keening pitch of this drug-trade thriller, where violence is casual – savage yet understated. The first in a series of outstanding set pieces involves a sickly bungalow in Phoenix, Arizona. An FBI van smashes through a wall, scattering topless gangsters, while the sound of helicopters thuds in the viewer’s chest. Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) leads her squad through the corridors, looking for hostages, but they find something else: dozens of mutilated bodies packed in the walls, like insulation, with plastic bags sucked tight over their skulls.
This escalation of violence close to home leads to a new team being put together, involving Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) and Matt (Josh Brolin). It is first names only, and they want Kate to join them, though at first it’s unclear why. Matt’s flip-flops and relaxed manner belie his extreme methods; Alejandro’s droopy, dead eyes suggest casual horrors. Kate, by contrast, is a straight shooter, and throughout the film she is caught between her will to be lawful and her desire to see real results in the drug war. Dubiously legal forays into Mexico yield more tremendous set pieces: in one, the usual car chase is replaced by a feverishly suspenseful traffic jam. In another, gunshots illuminate cramped tunnels as the camera flicks between emerald night vision and an eerie infra-red, in which hot blood becomes a milky abstraction.
Director Denis Villeneuve is a master of mood. This allows him to maintain the suspense over two hours, in spite of some false notes. For one, Alejandro’s revenge arc feels off. Without it, the film would have been slicker, and even darker. However, as in Enemy (2013), Villeneuve has created something moody and strange, and it draws one in. The deep, slow, whale-like horns in the soundtrack are viscerally unsettling, but he knows when to be quiet too, making it unbearably tense as the camera hangs silently behind Kate’s unguarded back, with only her sharp breaths and scuffed steps as she clears rooms. The cinematography is also distinctly his own. Look out for the motes of dust glowing like amber as they drift through still sunlight – Enemy was bathed in these spores. But it is the desert sky’s bloody sunset, disturbed by soft silhouettes, that is the perfect backdrop to the nihilistic ruthlessness of Sicario.
Sicario is released nationwide on 9th October 2015.
Watch the trailer for Sicario here: