Good movies misdirect us; less accomplished ones misdirect themselves. Such is the case with "Sicario," a well-intentioned political/crime thriller set amidst the violence spilling across the Mexican/U.S. border, especially the volatile El Paso/Juarez crossing point.
This film features a couple of effective performances by Emily Blunt and Benicio del Toro. But it spends so much effort keeping its main character in the dark about what she's gotten herself into, the audience is kept ignorant, too. And when people don't know what's at stake, they have a hard time getting emotionally invested in the proceedings.
Directed by Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve, who made the wonderfully harrowing "Prisoners" a couple of years ago, "Sicario" sets us off into a labyrinth and then is content to let us wander lost and perplexed. The screenplay by Taylor Sheridan, a TV actor with his first produced screenplay, is strong on mood and character but seems to think that's enough in itself to sustain a two-hour story acrc.
Blunt plays Kate Macer, a young but well-regarded FBI foot soldier in the war against narcotics. "She's a thumper," praises her boss (Victor Garber), meaning she's strong on tactics -- with the shaded implication that she's less accomplished at the subtler aspects of the job. The story opens with her leading a raid on a house of horrors in the Phoenix area, which starts bad and ends worse.
Thinking she's about to get the hook, Kate is instead offered a plum assignment with Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), an "advisor" who is putting together an ambitious task force to take the fight to the Mexican and Columbian cartels.
"We're here to shake the trees and create chaos," Graver says, which would be more reassuring if not for his flippant manner and barefaced disregard for following the rules. She insists on bringing her partner along (Daniel Kaluuya), though Graver turns him into a glorified chauffer.
At first Kate is impressed by the apparent resources and mojo behind this task force -- they fly on private airplanes, commandeer equipment, recruit soldiers fresh from Afghanistan to be their door-knockers.
Most intriguing is the presence of a man named only as Alejandro (del Toro), whom Graver introduces as his "bird dog." He follows along on their adventures, seemingly not doing very much, but quietly nudging events this way and that. He and Kate form something less than a bond, but more than professional regard.
Scraps of information about him leak out: he used to be a prosecutor, incurred some sort of tragedy that deep-sixed his career, now he's on loan to whatever governmental agency, south of the border or north, that currently needs him. The film's title, which in Mexico essentially means hit man, refers to Alejandro.
Things go on from there. We witness how the drug trade is plied in Juarez: naked, headless bodies strung up everywhere like totems; policemen who essentially operate as another arm of the drug lords; the implication that the American government tolerated the illicit trade when they had more control over it, etc.
Everything builds up to the central question: what is the group's real mission, and what is Kate's role in it? The way Graver keeps her on the wings, it seems clear she's in some way being used. The only real mystery is finding out in exactly what way she's the patsy.
Big reveals in movies are more impactful when it's a "what," not a "how."
You may have read that a sequel to "Sicario" has already been greenlit even before this film made it into theaters, and will follow del Toro's character. That's fine; perhaps that movie can more satisfyingly unwrap the portentous pretensions of this one.