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SICARIO

***1/2

I stand corrected, while simultaneously being floored by the development. It’s barely been a month since I decreed that No Escape was the most intense motion picture I’ve seen in 2015, and yet here’s Sicario storming through the gate and proving so potent that the Owen Wilson flick suddenly seems as incendiary as On Golden Pond by comparison.

An exaggeration? OK, a bit. But Sicario is nevertheless a Molotov cocktail of a movie, flaming fuels of helplessness and paranoia and scorching viewers’ nerves in the process. Like Steven Soderbergh’s Oscar-winning Traffic, it throws together Benicio Del Toro and the War on Drugs, and while it may not be as balanced and far-reaching as that bruising beauty of a film, it’s perhaps even more cynical – which of course is to say, more realistic – in its depiction of a battle in which there aren’t good guys and bad guys as much as there are bad guys, worse guys, and those few innocents caught in the crossfire.

Emily Blunt headlines as Kate Macer, an FBI agent whose take-charge, can-do demeanor in the field catches the eye of shady government operative Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), the sort of smarmy, faux-good ole boy who thinks nothing of wearing flip-flops to important meetings. Graver wants Macer on his team, to aid in tackling the drug crisis taking place along the U.S.-Mexico border – Macer accepts the assignment, even though Graver is keeping her in the dark a bit more than she would appreciate.

But if she thinks Graver is a clandestine figure, he’s as open and transparent as Mary Poppins when placed alongside Alejandro (Del Toro), a shadowy figure who joins Graver and his team as they set about trying to ascertain the identity of a particularly dangerous drug kingpin.

“Nothing will make sense to your American ears,” Alejandro tells Kate. “But in the end, you will understand.” That proves to be an opinion, not a guarantee, and Sicario excels in the manner in which it keeps its intentions close to its chest.

Kate Macer is, like all young law officers in the movies, an idealist, the figure audience members are automatically expected to rally behind. Yet while she does command the lion’s share of our sympathy, the picture, with its forceful script by Taylor Sheridan (a longtime TV actor making his writing debut), makes it clear that this is the type of poisonous war in which good intentions can get a person killed, and that the rules are made not only to be broken but to be ground into dust, like so much cocaine powder.

With Kate representing the hero America thinks it probably deserves and Matt serving as the anti-hero America arguably needs, it’s up to Alejandro to throw in any hints of moral ambiguity. Del Toro, in a marvelous performance, conveys the shifty nature of his character, who can morph from seemingly conscientious to casually cruel without raising an eyebrow.

Director Denis Villeneuve, whose Prisoners slipped onto my 10 Best list for 2013, has again crafted a motion picture that shows people attempting to navigate gray areas while wondering whether the ends justifies the means. And as before, he has turned to the brilliant Roger Deakins to shoot his picture, with the renowned cinematography once again making extraordinary use of shadows.

Also adding to the sense of unease that grips us at every turn is composer Johann Johannsson, a recent Oscar nominee for The Theory of Everything. Appropriately, his contribution feels less like a soundtrack and more like a funeral dirge – the sort of morose melody likely to back Charon as he ferries the war’s fallen across the Styx.

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