No more than about half an hour or so into Sicario we find our main characters on a mission to retrieve someone from a Mexican prison and transport them back to America. Everything has gone smoothly picking him up, but on the way back to the border they notice someone following the convoy in order to report on their movements, and not long after they find out that the border crossing is backed up with traffic. Sitting in the traffic jam, they slowly notice cartel members in other cars, but the voice in their ears tell them that they can't engage until they are engaged - so they sit in their cars, waiting for the cartel to make the first move before an intense burst of gunfire and violence over a matter of seconds concludes the confrontation. It's the kind of scene that leaves you breathless, a master class in building tension that makes you think "Wow. Nothing this film can do from now on can top that".
Unfortunately, Sicario actually doesn't manage to top that.
Sicario follows FBI agent Kate Macer as she joins a team of Delta Force operators who are attempting to hunt down the people in charge of a Mexican drug cartels. Led by an adviser for the Department of Justice, Matt Graver, they begin operations in Mexico in order to draw the leader of the cartel back into Mexico.
It's strange how a scene with such a clear sense direction and a firm understanding of pacing can sit in a film that overall doesn't have either. Director Denis Villeneueve seems to be repeating the slow burn progression that he used to great effect in 2013's Prisoners, but it doesn't quite work here thanks to some strange choices about how much information is given to the audience. In between the teams operations the only thing keeping the story moving is Kate's uncertainty about the purpose of the team and why she is with them, but thanks to the fact that Kate acts as the audiences sole viewpoint throughout the majority of Sicario we don't know these things either. Like Kate, we too end up unsure about why things are happening or what might happen next, but the mystery Sicario tries to create isn't intriguing enough to serve as a narrative and the eventual reveal is so inconsequential that I don't know why Sicario bothered to hide it from the audience in the first place.
Additionally (and I'm going to preface this by saying that it might just be me that feels this way), Kate as a character doesn't really have an effect on the way the film progresses, and that doesn't work for me. She has no agency within the story, partly due to the aforementioned way that she kind of has no idea what is going on throughout, but also because of the way that at the end of the day she is simply being used by the team she is meant to be a part of. The entire way that Sicario progresses is through things happening to her rather than her making things happen, and if I'm being honest I expected more from a film with Emily Blunt in - with or without her, almost all of Sicario would have happened the way it did anyway, to the point where it begins to feel like Sicario should have chosen a different main character.
It's a fairly obvious pair of flaws in a film that is otherwise incredibly well made, with stellar performances from the entire cast (particularly Benicio Del Toro, who is just... wow), gorgeous cinematography courtesy of the legendary Roger Deakins, and a handful of terrifically intense scenes that even in failing to be as good as the one I described above would still be the best part in many other films released this year. To be perfectly clear (because I have been fairly critical), I liked Sicario a lot, which is why I'm so frustrated about the fact that it doesn't quite live up to the potential that I think it clearly has.
Even with Sicario just missing out on greatness, Villeneueve is quickly becoming a director worth keeping on eye, someone who manages to blur the line between arthouse and mainstream incredibly effectively, and I'm looking forward to seeing what he does next. I wouldn't recommend Sicario to everyone (it simply isn't that kind of film), but if you think of yourself as a fan of cinema then this is definitely one to check out.