Living in the desert numbs you to just how dangerous your surroundings are. Dehydration is real, but only slightly inconvenient, and the beating sun is fatal, but an avoidable nuisance. In Juarez, crossing the street to soccer practice is one such fatal nuisance. The crossfire of drug cartels, mutilated bodies hanging from freeway overpasses, corrupt police carting cocaine for drug lords; this is just the backyard of their lives. The resigned submission to the desert is reflected in the lives of its dwellers.
Sicario dives into these stunning depths of violence along the US-Mexico border. Sicario centers on FBI agent Kate Mercer (Emily Blunt), who, during a raid in the suburbs of Phoenix, Arizona, discovers that peeling back the thin drywall of our confident security often unearths shrink-wrapped corpses. It isn’t long before Kate is whisked away to a special task force led by Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), whose razor thin smile hides something more sinister than just bodies.
The lurking and soft-spoken Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), a compliant team of Delta Force commandos, and no-questions-asked access to all means of destruction are as unnerving as the secrecy of their objective. When Kate confronts Alejandro on their mission, he simply responds “You ask how the watch is made. Keep your eye on the time.” After a bullet-ridden incursion into Juarez, its clear that more than just a border has been crossed. Kate is pushed further and further to violate every ethical and legal boundary she can think of. Each time she protests, she is curtly told “the boundaries have been moved.” As the objective of the mission becomes more clear, the extent of our “good-guy” persona, and what exactly the difference is between the war on terror and the war on drugs, becomes more blurred. Often the separation between us and them is just drywall. Or a fence.
Emily Blunt delivers a superb and and transformative performance that commands your attention as every bloody set-piece leaps forward to challenge her morality. However, the greatest strength of Sicario lies in its sun-drenched camera work. Roger Deakin’s lens serves to capture the dread of Denis Villenueve’s direction without ever taking you out of the spell. Sweeping shots of the Sonora desert, lumbering mountains, rolling storm clouds, and ominous sunsets gives a lingering sense of something just outside the frame. The danger always waits at the crest of the next hill.
As the action moves into the confines of city streets and underground tunnels, we are thrust into the role of the bystander. Put in the boots of a Mexican federal agent, strapped hopelessly to the back of a pickup truck in the line of mortal danger. Or the front seat of a family van waiting to cross the border into El Paso as fatigue-clad gunmen slither between the cars. These scenes aren’t extraordinary; when a bomb explodes outside a local soccer game, parents begrudgingly peek over their shoulder before going about their business. Sicario is a thrilling and deeply compelling “dark poem”, set in a morally ambiguous wasteland, to which there is seemingly no end to the madness. Such is life in the desert.