In the last three years, Mexico's murder rate has plummeted by a third. Alas, Denis Villeneuve's Sicario will give travel agents a headache. When naive FBI agent Kate (Emily Blunt) crosses the border, her companion Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) growls, "Welcome to Juarez." And how. Headless corpses dangle from highway overpasses; missing-person posters line the streets; machine guns shoot up traffic. From the sun-bleached shock-and-awe desert cinematography of an opening attack in Arizona, Sicario's point is clear: Our latest murky war is close to home. Both Villeneuve and his leading lady artlessly prosecute the cartels. Against the advice of world-wise Alejandro and his flippant partner Matt (Josh Brolin), she charges into crime scenes, eager to book gangsters for any petty crime.
The filmmaker signs the indictment with blood, inserting montages of actual corpses and literally wallpapering a safe house with Mexican dead. Effective, yes. But Villeneuve's voiceless victims begin to smell, especially when the film isn't much interested in them while alive, save for a Sonoran cop who spends most of Sicario in what may as well be a separate movie. Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan views Mexico with a dystopian cynicism; its citizens can't save themselves, and foreigners make things worse. I left the film sickened and scrambled, much as I did Villeneuve's previous films Prisoners and the double-Gyllenhaal head-scratcher Enemy. Villeneuve's proven he's got a strong punch. The trouble is, he barely aims. With Blunt sidelined as the film's angry, clumsy conscience, it's left to Del Toro to rescue us with campy humor, at one point torturing a druglord with a wet willie.