The race for the Palme d’Or heated up Tuesday with the première of Canadian director Denis Villeneuve’s “Sicario,” a violent drama about the efforts to take out the leader of a Mexican drug cartel.
“Sicario” joins “Son of Saul” and “Carol” as one of the critical hits so far among the competition films. (“Mad Max: Fury Road” and “Inside Out,” both of which are critical favorites screened out of competition.)
The movie, starring Emily Blunt as an FBI agent, focuses on the moral ambiguities of the drug war, a conflict that has taken a huge toll on life along the U.S.-Mexico border.
It opens with an FBI team discovering a house in Chandler, Arizona, where dozens of bodies have been sealed up behind drywall. It’s a grisly scene, and Blunt’s Kate Macer is one of the leaders of the mission.
The mass carnage disturbs Kate so much that she agrees to join a task force formed to track down the cartel leader responsible for the crime.
Alejandro (Benicio del Toro) and Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) are the task force’s two main men. Alejandro looks like he’s hiding something; Kate is immediately suspicious. Matt jokes and acts like he can do whatever he wants in the pursuit of the cartel leader. Kate suspects he’s really CIA, but doesn’t know for sure. Despite these misgivings, she agrees to participate in the job.
The first mission is to get to the local cartel leader in Arizona, and through a series of attacks on his drug trade, make him return to Mexico to discuss the matter with his leader — the ultimate prize of the task force.
Along the way, Villeneuve stages intense scenes of the task force being stopped in traffic along border highway, with cartel gunmen on either side of them. He and cinematographer Roger Deakins also use infrared cameras, reminiscent of the climactic scene in “Silence of the Lambs,” when filming a scene of the task force headed through a cartel tunnel under the border.
But the heart of the movie lies in the tension between Blunt’s Kate and del Toro’s Alejandro. Kate doesn’t understand Alejandro’s motivation, but she begins to understand that he’s a sicario — a Mexican term for a hitman.
And as an FBI agent, she has to play by the rules — having to account for every bullet she fires. In contrast, Alejandro and Matt are willing to spray bullets all over the place.
Villeneuve is raising interesting questions about the war on drugs — and through Kate’s character, he’s questioning American tactics. After seeing the carnage in the early part of the film, many viewers will take the side of Alejandro and Matt. But Villeneuve doesn’t make such a position easy to maintain.
It’ll be interesting to see how audiences respond. “Sicdario” probably won’t be a box-office hit, but it should make significant inroads in the arthouse market — and on the awards circuit.