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I’ve admittedly not been fond of Denis Villeneuve’s work in the past. Derek’s review of Enemy in particular mirrors my sentiments almost exactly, and Prisoners, while gorgeously shot, didn’t amount to as much as I’d hoped and drops the ball on practically every moral dilemma it introduces. But along comes Sicario to blow me away, just like it does to an abundance of nameless characters on screen.

Villeneuve and writer Taylor Sheridan waste no time at all introducing us to the death that populates Sicario, as FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) raids a house to rescue hostages of a drug cartel and discovers a multitude of dead bodies within every wall. There’s an explosion, there’s some gunshots, there’s some blood, and it all leads to her being enlisted by a government task force — more or less run by Benicio Del Toro and Josh Brolin — who prove to be a little less than ethical in their handling of situations.

What we’ve got here is a film that instantly places the audience in the shows of a seemingly amateurish and naive character thrown into a world entirely out of her league. Blunt completely falls into the role of the lamb — who never gets the chance to finish any cigarette she lights throughout the film — and Del Toro and Brolin inject some deliciously appropriate dark humor into their wolves. They’re on the same side, of course, but motivations and tactics all differ. It’s not, by any means, an unfamiliar premise, but the execution and narrative unfolding is rather fascinating and arguably easy to misconstrue as nihilistic and solely interested in showing how dangerous Mexico is due to drug cartels.

That would be a grave misconception though, as Villeneuve is more interested in delivering a scathing commentary on the inefficiency of the US government in taking down drug cartels and how personal motivations are of greater import than public safety and getting the job done properly. By no means is it optimistic, drenched in cynicism from start to finish, but it doesn’t follow the almost gleefully bleak tone that Ridley Scott’s The Counselor did, instead condemning the evil acts that both sides of a war commit.

Discussions of the film on both a narrative and aesthetic front will inevitably lead to a lot of comparisons — from Traffic to Michael Mann’s films to Zero Dark Thirty — and, while the film is very much steeped in the director’s current style, the latter of those is one especially worth exploring. Both films feature a female protagonist placed in compromising situations, both films focus heavily on questionable US methods of problem solving, and both films utilize night-vision to varying effects for raid scenes. With the latter point, Villeneuve’s use of both night-vision and thermal imagery in a slowly unfolding sequence that amps up fear for character safety tenfold proves infinitely more interesting than Bigelow’s rushed use of it for an event whose ending we all knew far too well prior to the film’s release.

There’s an undeniable tension in every single beat of the film, helped along by the fact that Roger Deakins’ immaculate photography never shies away from violence without glorifying or romanticizing any of it. That said, it does occasionally beat certain shots to death, in particular a constant cutback to a dead body within the first few minutes for unnecessary impact. Some might argue that a shift in perspective in the latter half removes agency and allegiance from the film’s heroine (if she can even be referred to as one is a different story) and places it in someone willing to embrace violence. That’s a fair point, but anyone watching with a close eye can gather that Villeneuve and Sheridan have no intention of offering up sympathy to those who do bad things, as compelling as the set pieces they populate are.

With Sicario, neither director or writer offer clean-cut conclusions to the pressing moral questions they bring up or optimism in the fact of war. And that’s perfectly fine, solely because it does such a fine job exploring them in thriller that’s smarter, more stylish, and better performed than it has any right to be.

Directed by Denis Villeneuve; written by Taylor Sheridan; starring Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin and Jon Bernthal; 121 minutes.

Sicario is currently undergoing a rollout release in the US. It opens in Miami on October 2nd.