09/29/2015 01:43 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Zaki's Review: Sicario

After being entranced and unnerved by Denis Villeneuve's uncompromising morality fable Prisoners two years ago, I knew right away he was a director to keep an eye on, and I eagerly awaited word of his next project. Well, with the arrival of his equally entrancing and raw Sicario, it's clear that my early faith in the French helmer was well justified. With its visceral depiction of the United States government's ongoing war against Mexican drug cartels, Sicario is so grimy you can practically feel it under your fingernails like soot. Not a feel-good movie, but a damn good one.

Emily Blunt leads the cast of famous and familiar faces as Kate Macer, an FBI agent who's recruited by CIA handler Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) to assist in their operations just over the Tex-Mex border after increasingly brazen (and horrifying) encroachments Stateside by the cartels. Also along for the ride is Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), an "advisor" whose motives are as mysterious as his general demeanor. What follows is a two-hour morass of questionable actions by those in power, all in service a vaguely-defined "good" that may or may not even be worth fighting for.

In a lot of ways the layer-upon-layer of dodgy solutions to omnipresent problems reminded me of 2005"s Syriana, not to mention 2000's Traffic (for which Del Toro took home a well-deserved Supporting Actor Oscar). Like those films, Sicario doesn't sidestep the inherent complexities of the situation it depicts. In addition to Villanueve's direction and Roger Deakins' cinematography, it also benefits from a terrific script by actor-turned-writer Taylor Sheridan, who makes a confident entree onto the feature writing stage. Not only is it remarkably effective at making us ask "What's going to happen?", but also the more challenging "What would I do?"

The moral quandaries and ethical compromises our protagonists are forced to engage in are so taxing that I felt worn down and exhausted by the time I left the theater, but  what makes it all work so well are the performances, foremost among them the two leads. Emily Blunt last worked with Del Toro was in 2010's The Wolfman, wherein she played the damsel-in-distress opposite Benicio as the brooding, titular werewolf. Here she confidently takes center stage, imbuing Macer with not only tough-as-nails bravado, but also an undercurrent of human frailty that rather than make her appear weak, actually has the opposite effect.

And of course Del Toro too is given a rich arc as Alejandro. Although he largely remains a cipher throughout, the film forces us to question and re-question our perception of the character right up to the very end. Arriving just after a summer season jam packed with big budgets and broad strokes, it's refreshing to be able to dive deep into a smaller-scale drama whose stakes feel far more real, far more personal. In 2013 I absolutely loved what Denis Villanueve did with Prisoners. Two years later, I love Sicario even more. Not merely an engrossing drama. Not merely a challenging thriller. One of the best movies of the year. A

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