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The brilliant ‘Sicario’ is a tension-soaked slice of an unwinnable war

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Emily Blunt takes top billing in Sicario.
Mike D'Angelo

Four and a half stars

Sicario Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, Benicio Del Toro. Directed by Denis Villeneuve. Rated R. Opens Friday.

Sicario, the latest film from Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Enemy), opens with text explaining the title, which means “hit man” in Spanish. It’s the last explanation that will be forthcoming for a long while. At the outset, Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), an FBI agent specializing in hostage situations, finds dozens of corpses in a house near the Mexican border; she’s then drafted into a special inter-agency task force led by Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), who’s allegedly a Department of Defense consultant.

Matt kicks off this partnership by lying to Kate about their destination—he claims they’re headed to El Paso, but takes her instead to Juárez, where he abducts a possible informant—and consistently refuses to explain the details of the mission, offering only vague, rather smug remarks about creating chaos in order to undermine the drug war. In particular, he says very little about Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), who accompanies them without appearing to have any official role or designation. Kate very much wants to do the right thing, but that’s exceedingly difficult when the people in command deliberately keep you in the dark.

From its opening raid on the Arizona house of horrors to its climactic face-off between two characters who are ostensibly on the same side, Sicario is among the most relentlessly tension-filled movies in recent memory. The movie can be enjoyed (if that’s the right word for something so harrowing) strictly on a superficial level, as a masterfully choreographed slow descent into the moral ooze of an unwinnable war.

What’s most remarkable, however—and potentially frustrating for some—is the way that it gradually neutralizes its apparent protagonist, rendering Kate ever more impotent as the story progresses, until she winds up being shoved aside entirely. In its own maddening way, this is a more potent feminist statement than it would be to have Kate kick righteous ass, as one would generally expect from a narrative like this. (It’s likewise significant that Kate’s partner, played by Daniel Kaluuya, is black.)

Sicario’s despairing cynicism says less about the Mexican drug war than it says about the American propensity to abuse power. It’s a necessary tonic.

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