The new film “Sicario”—Spanish for “hitman”—opens with a shot of a familiar Arizona suburb nestled quietly between the hills. Seconds later the peace is disrupted when a SWAT team barrels through the side of a house, uncovering an underworld of grisly cartel violence and chucking that initial image of tranquility into the trash. The metaphor, like the film’s lead actress, is blunt: where drug war is concerned, even trustworthy exteriors hide dark secrets.
The opening raid ends poorly for all but Kate (Emily Blunt), the raiding team’s sole woman. Kate’s history of confronting criminal brutality with nerves of steel earns her an invitation from contractor Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) to join a task force to the U.S.-Mexico border. It’s exciting to see a woman in this kind of role in a Hollywood thriller, but Kate is swimming in unwelcoming waters. After reviewing her file and praising her talent, the men in charge of the border mission call Kate in for questioning about her relationships—Kate the FBI agent is less important for their purposes than Kate the theoretical wife and mother.
Divorced, childless, and otherwise bereft of much backstory, Kate passes the empathy screening exam. She’s shipped off to the border with partner Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya, providing much-needed comic relief) and briefed on her new mission. The audience is kept just as confused as Kate on the exact details, but it’s clear there is more going on in the cartel wars than Graver and his team are letting on.
Kate’s suspicion of Graver’s motives is fueled by Mexican hitman Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), an unsettling figure who lurks in the shadows but rides shotgun in every mission. Alejandro cautions Kate against putting too much trust in her moral compass and presuppositions about the drug trade. “Nothing will make sense to your American ears,” he preaches to us through her, “but in the end you’ll understand.”
That’s a spurious claim at best. While its grim pessimism gives a kick in the pants to other pop cultural entries in the drug war genre, “Sicario” sheds little new light on the nature of border conflict and cartels. The film’s early promise—a thoughtful take on American involvement in Mexico’s drug trade—eventually gives way to a thriller rife with extravagant double-crossings and ulterior motives. Abetted by an orchestra operating under the influence, Denis Villeneuve’s direction genuinely excels at raising your blood pressure even while glorying too much in ghastly imagery for shock value.
None of the film’s dark twists exist outside the realm of possibility—actual stories  and images  of cartel violence in Latin America are well documented and often more gruesome than fiction. Though Villeneuve visited  Juárez to ensure that the Mexican city was accurately portrayed, his research often bears only generic fruits.
A subplot involving a young Mexican family’s steady demise intends to give us a portal into the lives affected by drug violence  across the border; it plays as a hodgepodge of clichés, adding little of substance to what is primarily an American story. But the character of Alejandro does give us a better idea of the cost of cartels on the Latin American everyman. When Kate finally learns his lurid motives, we’re inclined to believe them: Del Toro acts with such unsettling certainty that his character’s grim past may as well be the actor’s own.
By the film’s end, Kate’s agency has eroded almost entirely. Thanks to men who want to use her to further their own dubious interests, Kate learns that survival in the drug war is less about talent than willingness to cross moral boundaries. The chromatic evolution of the film’s landscapes, from brown deserts to oppressively blue skylines, parallels Kate’s gradual fall from sturdy idealism to brooding nihilism. Shot by legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, the movie aims for realism by way of natural lighting . But at the nadir of the story’s moral descent, a climactic raid on a drug tunnel, Deakins disposes of the sun altogether and brings out an infrared sensor to shoot underground. Captivating photography aside, the scene’s visual authenticity is a mask for Hollywoodized titillation.
Just as alluring is the filmmakers’ belief that the only solution to drug violence is the maintenance of order at any moral cost. That thesis is less of a proven argument than an extrapolation from the despairing stories of lives caught in the crossfire. Box office pending, it may also be a case of pandering to audiences primed by “Breaking Bad” to insist on entertainment with a pitch-black heart.
Tim Markatos is an editorial assistant at The American Conservative.