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‘Sicario’ a brilliant film about drug trade, human weakness

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From left, Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin and Emily Blunt appear in “Sicario.” (Richard Foreman, Jr./Lionsgate)

Summer is over, and awards season is looming. With it comes “Sicario,” a movie that looks like it’s going to preach about the evils of the world, just as Oscar-winners “Traffic,” “Syriana” and “Crash” did. Fortunately, “Sicario” is something entirely different, bold and brilliant.

Directed by the French-Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve (“Incendies,” “Prisoners”) and with cinematography by the great Roger Deakins (“Skyfall,” “True Grit”), “Sicario” looks and sounds nothing like you’d expect.

It’s an observant movie; it watches, waits, takes stock of what’s going on, but rarely answers any questions or explains with too much detail.

It begins in Arizona, where FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) and her partner Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya) raid a house and discover decomposing corpses, nailed up behind the sheetrock. That’s gruesome enough, but while poking around, other officers trigger a booby-trapped explosive.

At headquarters, the leader of a new task force, Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) recruits Kate for a new mission, one that will allow her to actually get the bad guys, the Mexican drug lords, rather than clean up messes.

This mission has the feel of a first day on a new job. Everything is unknown, and Kate, surrounded by men twice her size, stays on her guard, refusing to appear confused or uncertain.

Though Kate is told their destination is Texas, she is actually taken to Mexico, where her team begins shooting at random suspects near the border.

She also meets the mysterious Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), who keeps to himself, but seems to carry some kind of sad wisdom. (While all of the actors’ performances are exemplary, Del Toro’s is exceptional.)

Occasionally Kate gets angry and wants to know what’s going on; in one scene, as she confronts Matt, cinematographer Deakins holds a wide shot, framing them for a weirdly long time. Afterward, the dramatic tension has shifted, but very little has been revealed.

Actor Taylor Sheridan (“Sons of Anarchy”) makes a great screenwriting debut in the film, which occasionally includes scenes of a Mexican policeman at home, having breakfast, spending time with his son, etc. They don’t have a narrative purpose, although, eventually, their emotional purpose is revealed.

Indeed, without tipping its hand, the movie generally fixates on human frailties, such as hunger or exhaustion, a need for companionship, or the difficulty of navigating a tight space.

Its conclusion has less to do with the drug trade than it does human foibles. Thus, “Sicario” can be relentlessly cynical, but it’s also mesmerizing, and exhilarating.

Four stars
Starring Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin, Daniel Kaluuya
Written by Taylor Sheridan
Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Rated R
Running time 2 hours, 1 minute

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