Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners was a campy piece of horror that believed it was a serious meditation on the human condition. For the most part, Sicario is much more successful at being a serious affair.
The context helps.
Set along the US/Mexico border and dealing with the evils of the drug trade, Sicario taps into the disease of the failed drug war. It seems only a matter of time before the cartel violence common in Central America storms into the US.
When Kate Macer’s (Emily Blunt) FBI unit discovers a home with 42 victims of cartel violence plastered in its walls, its frighteningly plausible even in Phoenix, Arizona. Her actions bring her to the attention of a defense contractor Matt Graver (Josh Brolin). He’s looking for a willing patsy, but his Department of Defense connections pique Kate’s attentions. Her eyes sparkle with the potential for career advancement when she agrees to help Matt bring the cartels to justice.
While Kate seems to think she’s starting off on a heroes quest its the beginning of a descent. The sins of Pride and Wrath however slight were enough to seal her fate. She’s really found herself in a horror film. Everyone is corruptible. Whether through a roll of American currency or the whiff of promotion or fame, every person seems to have already made their bargain with the drug industry. Whichever side they’ve chosen, as Kate meets them its clear she is the expendable party.
Inexcusably, at the climax of the picture Sicario sidelines its actual protagonist for the one alluded to in the title. Emily Blunt’s character is simply out of frame and out of the action. In doing so, Sicario abandons many of its virtues as well. What had been an claustrophobic, paranoid world condenses into a sleek actioner. Experienced gangsters and their bodyguards are mowed down calmly, never seeing their murderer. A side character is revealed as an Angel of Vengeance, only partially bound to the laws of man and of physics.
Villeneuve has a deep sympathy for Mexico and its people caught between the cartels and the US government’s drug policy of stirring up chaos for chaos sake. But in Sicario its a diversion. The heart of the picture is seeing this world for the first time through Kate’s eyes. Sicario doesn’t seem to realize this, and in doing so builds an interesting feature out of the parts of a great one.