The motif to which Denis Villeneuve’s ferocious cartel thriller keeps returning may seem inconsequential. But Villeneuve (Prisoners, Incendies) is not that kind of director, and this is not that kind of film.
In the afternoon heat, dust motes dance in front of the camera lens, a beautiful image to which he will come back. First time you see it, there’s no time to ponder the deeper meanings because the next five minutes offer, simply, one of the most exciting action sequences you’ll see all year.
We’re in Chandler (read: Shitsville), Arizona, as a SWAT team surrounds a nondescript bungalow. Even before the credits begin, Jóhann Jóhannsson’s heart-in-mouth electronic score pulses oppressively.
Here, for the first time, we cut to those motes, swirling in a darkened living room, until – BOOM! – the walls explode, and Kidnap Response Unit agents Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), her partner Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya from Psychoville, another Brit abroad), and their colleagues storm the building. We won’t spoil what happens next, but suffice to say it’s memorably traumatic, swathed in shellshocked screams and choking sand: another kind of dust.
Macer barely has time to wash the blood out of her hair before she’s paraded in front of a cabal of Y-chromosome-heavy officials including undercover operative Matt (Josh Brolin), dress-down dismissive in flip-flops.
The Mexican drug cartels are encroaching into Arizona, we’re told, before the sort of sexist interrogation Clarice Starling had to endure: “Married?” “No.” “Kids?” “No. Anything else?” Macer, needless to say, volunteers to join the fight back. Her mission? In Matt’s words: “To overreact dramatically.” Watching what follows, you’ll know exactly how that feels...
Strangely, for a film more likely to waste innocent bystanders than time, Macer’s first assignment with Matt and his mysterious cohort Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) – an over-the-border raid to kidnap a cartel leader – serves very little narrative purpose, or could at least be elided in montage.
But Taylor Sheridan’s action-heavy, exposition-light script is smarter than that, and the effect of this sequence is threefold. Firstly, it illustrates the vastness of the drugs trade and the dangers of trying to dismantle it. Secondly, it puts us, like Macer, out on the frontline. But most of all it’s polygraph-test tense.
Set to the bass drone of a distant air strike, or a stomach turning over, five black government vehicles rip through battle-ravaged bandit country expecting ambushes at every corpse-draped corner. For 15 minutes, nothing happens, but all that time spent sitting on your hands means that, when violence flares on a crowded border road, the anxiety levels are unbearable.
The resulting carnage, sneers Matt, “won’t even make the papers in El Paso.” But there’s a subtle significance even in the shots of endless cars trying to cross into America – from above they look like dust particles, too.
It is, without doubt, one of the greatest traffic jams ever committed to celluloid, right up there with Fellini’s 8½ and Joel Schumacher’s Falling Down. And while the film never quite tops it, each of the set-pieces that follow – a neon-strafed night mission; a vicious motel room mano-amano; all kinds of car chases and casual torture – contains enough character to keep them compelling.
Tough but brittle, Blunt would make a great Sarah Connor, but Macer isn’t really the centre of this story (which wouldn’t pass the Bechdel test). Brolin and Del Toro’s world-weary charisma speaks of once-decent men capable of terrible things, and breakout star Kaluuya’s welcome warmth makes his sidekick cherishable rather than disposable.
But Villeneuve and Sheridan want to show more than just the American side, giving us glimpses into the home life of Mexican cop Silvio (Maximiliano Hernández), who’s granted a domesticity the other characters lack.
The reason for these cutaways isn’t immediately clear, but there’s a clue in the cigarette boxes piled next to Silvio’s bed: Indian Creek, the same (illegally imported?) brand Macer smokes. “You’re asking me how a watch works,” says Matt when Macer asks for an overview of the conflict. “For now let’s just keep our eyes on the time.” Silvio, it will transpire, is just another cog in the same sprawling machine.
Taken at face value, Sicario (Spanish for ‘hitman’) fires on just about every level, from Jóhannsson’s supple score to Roger Deakins’ desert-scorched cinematography to Sheridan’s pared-to-the-bone script. But Villeneuve’s also trying to show us something more ambitious than gut-punch gunfights: that the fallout from the drugs trade is everywhere, the violence invisible, but endemic.
Echoed over and over – in the speckled snow of night-vision goggles, rockets fireworking the Mexican skies, the smoke of innumerable Indian Creek cigarettes – those dust motes stand in for all the evils not easily seen, but spreading all the same.