Denis Villeneuve
Stars: Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin
Rating: R
4 (out of 5) Globes

“Sicaro” opens with a SWAT van driving straight into a drug house in one of those prefab, high-end Arizona suburbs seen on “Breaking Bad.” The payoff is both more violent and more nightmarish than anything that could ever run on AMC, but this isn’t TV anyway — not “Breaking Bad,” and not even “The Wire,” another less than encouraging survey of the War on Drugs. It’s a movie — a self-contained one-off that paints a succinct, darkly comic portrait of hopelessness and moral rot with no shortage of Cormac McCarthyisms, not the least of them the presence of “No Country for Old Men” star Josh Brolin. It doesn’t need to be a TV series to feel huge.

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Its argument, though, is relatively simple, namely that the drug war is so far gone that there’s little difference between the cops and robbers. That makes it sound too pat and simplistic. There isn’t that obligatory moment of realization that the good guys and bad guys are the same. The main players are in too deep to care. They even like it that way. Our token guide through this purgatory is Kate (Emily Blunt), a federal agent who usually deals with kidnapping but has been farmed out to the DEA. There she finds a boys club of frattish thugs, who crack Vice-ish jokes (“Leave Figi alone, terrorists!”) before gunning down perps in the middle of a Juarez traffic jam, safe in the knowledge that their illegal, reckless acts will never make the papers. One of their key agents is Matt (Brolin), a swinging dick wiseacre who arrives in flip-flops and sports a hungry smirk that only disappears when he’s issuing threats to anyone who might rat them out.


Benicio Del Toro’s mysterious Alejandro seems like the literal good cop — the soulful one who doesn’t say much and spikes his coffee out of anguish, not to flavor his misdeeds. But his reticence only masks his super-sized evil. Soon he’s torturing suspects in such a way that director Denis Villeneuve (“Prisoners,” “Enemy”) can only zoom in on a drain in the floor, leaving his actions to your fiery imagination. (One of the few deeds we actually see is him shoving his finger so far into a guy’s ear that we think he’ll scrape out his brain.) They argue that the cartels are worse, and it’s true; the sights are littered with headless bodies strung up from highways — horrors that have finally made it to the other side of the border. They can tell themselves they’re not as bad as that, but only in a way that gives them an excuse to treat Mexico like a psycho’s playground.

Blunt’s Kate isn’t your typical tabula rasa. She angrily rebels against her new pals soon as she knows what’s what, which is almost right away. She wants to help as much as she realizes anything she does is for naught. And she can’t help but be drawn to it, not because of darker forces inside her but for the same reason we’re watching: a curiosity at how messed-up things can get. She’s close to the hero in “The Vanishing,” and even winds up, late in, signing up for a mission that takes her, like that film's protagonist, literally underground, just to see what hell is unleashed, knowing it may, in a literal or just figurative way, destroy her.

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What unfolds can be tangled and confusing, short on specifics, big on general ickiness. But that’s how it should be. The narrative, like the morality, is murky and muddled, though knowing why one character is embarking on one mission won’t make anything clearer. It’s about the gist — the gist that no one knows what’s going on and will in fact profit off the confusion.

The filmmaking itself, though, is cool and ominous, laced with blackest comedy. Villeneuve can be an overly portentous director, working up an overdetermined lather over the increasingly asinine “Prisoners” or “Enemy.” “Sicario” finds him both reining himself in and applying precision to how he doles out his moods of unease. A traffic jam shoot-out gets intense without ever becoming exciting, and therefore entertaining, and therefore tacitly approving. And a mid-film hook-up-gone-wrong between Kate and a bar bro (peerless sleazeball Jon Bernthal) has a slow build that gnaws on the nerves even before things have turned physical. It’s not a film about the drug war, in the sense that it has any solutions to fix it. It is a film about the drug war as a metaphor for life at its worst, an unsalvageable wasteland peopled by those — mostly men, natch — who only know how to play dirty.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge
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