A STRONG female protagonist is thrown in with cocky, war-hardened marines and sent to an alien planet to fight a deadly and faceless enemy that cocoons its victims. No, we’re not talking about James Cameron’s 1990 sci-fi-slasher classic Aliens but the latest grim confection from the ascending genius of Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Incendies).
Sicario (a Mexican term for hitman) does a superb job of pairing such horror elements with the sun-baked darkness of cartel-ridden badlands. Emily Blunt is by-the-books FBI agent Kate Macer, co-opted on to a special task force to Mexico to escort a top cartel leader for questioning. Not only does the convoy have a bullseye painted on it, but Kate is also unsettled by both the movements of Josh Brolin’s shifty mission leader and a smouldering Colombian consultant (Benicio Del Toro) riding alongside her.
The tension at one border-control scene is a work of art but Villeneuve and first-time scriptwriter Taylor Sheridan unsettle at seemingly banal moments as well. Kate’s questions are never answered properly. Moralities blur. Cinematographer Roger Deakins conjures bee-sting alarm bells with a jaundiced yellow-and-black palette.
The three-way dynamic of Blunt (essentially playing one of us), Del Toro (a career high) and Brolin is delectable and full of hidden corners. Villeneuve, meanwhile, burning images into the mind through composition and light-play, ensures Sicario stays with you for days afterwards. If you only see one action thriller this year, it must be this.
First published in the Sunday Independent