Sicario, which translates from Spanish to “hit man,” technically refers to a specific character in the film with a mission to take out the head of a drug cartel. The film’s series of twists are crafted to bring this assassin closer to his ultimate target, and Sicario makes the journey relentlessly intense. The real victim, though, is Sicario‘s protagonist, whose attempts to always do the right thing repeatedly push her further out of the film’s events. The film’s initial promise of an ass-kicking female hero is trampled, which proves to be a far bolder move.
Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) begins in complete control, though. She’s the head of an FBI unit that handles hostage situations. After a raid on a house in Arizona leads to the discovery of dozens of corpses hiding in the walls, though, Kate is invited to join a Department of Defense “consultant,” Matt (Josh Brolin), in his interagency unit. The unit’s mission, as Kate is told, is to destabilize the Mexican cartel responsible for the massacre. The first real sign that something’s up, though, comes when Kate is told that the team is heading to El Paso, only to travel across the border to Juárez for a dangerous extraction mission. It’s just one of the many lies fed to her by Matt and his mysterious associate, Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), when they bother to tell her anything in the first place. Kate struggles to maintain her trust in those above her, even as every one of her instincts are trashed. By the end, her autonomy is stripped down to either going along with the unit, or death.
One of the talking points to come out during the cast and crew’s press tour is that the filmmakers were pressured to make Kate a male role, and it’s absolutely to their credit that they refused. Would the film work with an idealistic male lead? Sure. But Sicario doesn’t provide an easy ending, and by making the lead character not only so admirable, but also female, it creates a reaction to Kate’s ultimate plight that I don’t think would exist if the protagonist was a male. Further highlighting the marginalization of heroic characters: Kate’s partner is black, and is so routinely ignored that Matt never remembers his name.
The narrative intent is certainly admirable, but what makes Sicario work is that it’s also relentlessly exciting. The cast is uniformly excellent, with Del Toro in particular working on a level previously shown in his Oscar-winning performance in Traffic. First-time screenwriter Taylor Sheridan’s story is taut and gripping. Director Denis Villeneuve, meanwhile, comes out of the film a stronger filmmaker. He’s proven effective with films like Prisoners and Enemy, but Sicario is the best material he’s worked with to date, and he expertly crafts both intense action set pieces and scenes that, in theory, should be more mundane. Ultimately, though, the film’s success centers around Blunt, and her ability to convincingly not play the action role that Hollywood (and plenty of fans) have tried to push on her for years. With that, she nails the role and makes the film all the more fascinating.