If "The Martian" offers audiences a glimpse of humanity at its best, "Sicario" resides firmly at the opposite end of the spectrum. Its story, about the drug war being waged at the US-Mexican border, offers a rather despairing reminder that wading into morally and ethically murky waters often leaves everyone covered in muck.
We follow tough, by-the-book FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), who specializes in kidnapping and hostage situations. Inspired by a grisly discovery during a raid on a drug kingpin's Arizona safe house, Kate volunteers to join an elite task force that will attempt to capture the people responsible. Led by Department of Defense contractor Matt (Josh Brolin) and his stone-faced associate, Alejandro (a magnetic Beniciodel Toro), the unit's mission is to "shake the tree and create chaos" in the hopes of drawing out the big players. Originally claiming to be headed to El Paso, they end up crossing the border into Juárez, Mexico, where US forces supposedly have no jurisdiction.
Kate is the movie's conscience, though it quickly becomes clear that there's no place for idealists in the war on drugs. Her efforts to do the right thing are repeatedly stymied, and we witness her idealism get beaten down as her adherence to the law lands her in over her head. She (and by extension the audience) are kept in the dark about the true nature of Matt and Alejandro's work, and we feel Kate's growing frustration as she's increasingly relegated to the sidelines. Blunt is, as always, wonderful. Kate is a tough character to play: she's vulnerable but never weak; naive, but not stupid.
Like Villeneuve's "Prisoners," the film was shot by master cinematographer Roger Deakins and as with everything Deakins points his camera at, it looks great. Meanwhile, JóhannJóhannsson's pulsing score adds an unnerving undercurrent to the action. Aside from a subplot involving a Mexican police officer, which is manipulative and wholly unnecessary, the script by Taylor Sheridan is solid. It walks a fine line between making the general method behind the action clear while the specifics remain (deliberately) impenetrable. "Sicario" is nothing if not intense, and Villeneuve builds that tension throughout the film until it reaches almost unbearable levels. He takes what might otherwise have been a conventional drug thriller, and turns it into a moral and ethical horror film.