First, the bad news: Sicario probably isn't the movie you're expecting it to be. Emily Blunt doesn't single-handedly take down any cartels, and there's nothing righteous or galvanizing about director Denis Villeneuve's vision of the drug war.
The good news is that this ground-level view of that intractable affair eschews moralizing while zeroing in on the moral cost of even attempting to fulfill one's duties, government-appointed or otherwise.
Blunt stars as Kate Macer, an FBI agent specializing in abduction cases. She gets enlisted into a larger, vaguer operation after handling herself well on a raid in which dozens of dead bodies are found in the walls, floorboards, and crawlspace of a home near Phoenix. Though she doesn't see anything quite so visually disturbing thereafter, much of it is just as dispiriting.
Kate volunteers for all the right reasons: bringing the near-mythical kingpins responsible to justice and making the U.S.-Mexico border a marginally safer place. This, of course, makes her the perfect mark for two higher-ups (Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro), who keep their new underling in the dark as much as legally possible lest she actually carry out their stated objectives by the books.
They don't tell her which agencies they belong to, what their ultimate goal is, or how they plan to go about achieving it. Ever the idealist, she puts up with their secrecy in the hopes of doing some good.
If that sounds like a frustrating premise, therein lies the point. Navigating a complex power structure that wants you to accomplish only so much is the primary struggle of Sicario, with Kate's increasing disenchantment informing our own.
Which isn't to say that the film it isn't gripping. It's just that there's nothing traditionally fun or cool about the way Villeneuve stages lethal shootouts at a border checkpoint or backroom interrogations in nondescript buildings. You'll feel your stomach drop the way it would on a rollercoaster, but it's never followed by the same euphoric release. These set-pieces, which are so white-knuckle intense as to be physically uncomfortable at times, are more Zero Dark Thirty than Scarface.
Ditto our heroine. Kate's trajectory mirrors that of Jessica Chastain's troubled CIA agent, who likewise learns that genuine victories are rare and don't come without sacrificing something: an ideal if you're lucky, part of your soul if you're not.
Though fully capable and rarely in over her head, Kate is never allowed to factor into the operation in any meaningful way. Whether part of a motorcade in Juárez or tunneling from one side of the border to the other, she only sees the tip of the iceberg (or spear, for that matter).
Brolin, who has the rare talent of essentially playing the same character in every movie without becoming tiresome, is the same rakish charmer he always is. He wears flip-flops and happily describes the point of the mission he's taking Blunt on as "dramatically overreacting." In other words, he's the smiling face of a conflict that most often elicits exasperated frowns.
Del Toro, meanwhile, does what he always does: lends an air of grizzled prestige to the proceedings. He makes grim, cool-sounding pronouncements like "Nothing will make sense to your American ears" that instantly designate him as a man who's seen some shit — and oh, has he ever. Though neither is called upon to display the same outward range as Blunt, both co-stars excel in slightly modulating their tone to signify either good humor or menace depending on the scene.
Villeneuve belongs to a long line of foreign directors who've brought their talents to Hollywood, and Sicario more than makes up for the disappointment of Prisoners. The Québécois auteur specializes in frank depictions of difficult material, and anyone seeking out past work would do well to prioritize Enemy or Polytechnique (with the caveat that the latter is not for the even slightly faint of heart).
The other stars here are cinematographer Roger Deakins and composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, whose styles mesh seamlessly. The oppressive beauty of Sicario's visual and aural palette is largely thanks to them; without it, none of the tension would be nearly as acute.
Still, there's no denying that all of this flows through Blunt. When exactly she went from Hollywood's best-kept secret to an ascendant leading lady is difficult to pin down, but we're all better off for it.
She glides through the film with steely grace, displaying resolve and vulnerability in equal measure. For how much it echoes her underrated performance in Edge of Tomorrow, someone may need to make her the face of an action franchise pretty soon. Here it falls upon her to impose order on a system that persists on the opposite. Maybe they should have called the movie Sisyphus.