Brutal truth behind drug war evident in latest Del Toro tour de force

Brutal truth behind drug war evident in latest Del Toro tour de force


Starring: Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin

Directed by: Denis Villenueve

Rated: R


There is the war on drugs we see play out on the evening news, and then there is the shadow war on drugs that Denis Villenueve reveals in his latest film. It’s a riveting action thriller set on the Arizona/Mexico border where a major Mexican drug cartel has moved their operation stateside.

It begins at a nondescript house in a suburb of Phoenix where FBI Agent Kate Macy (Emily Blunt), who leads a hostage unit, is conducting a raid. Inside they find no hostages, but hidden behind the interior walls of the home are at least 20 dead bodies wrapped in plastic, all the victims of the Diaz cartel. It’s a horrific scene, and Macy’s steeliness during the raid earns the attention of a drug enforcement inter-agency task force leader named Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), who picks her for the team.

Also along for the mission is Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), an former Mexican prosecutor whose exact role on the task force is not clear. In fact, Matt isn’t very forthcoming to Kate about much of anything, and she begins to suspect that behind his carefree persona, he’s hiding a lot of secrets. Not to mention that her by-the-book Girl Scout attitude clashes with his breezy, break-the-rules style.

Secrets abound in this first script from Taylor Sheridan, who some may remember as the deputy in “Sons of Anarchy” before he turned to writing. It’s solid and gripping, and doesn’t shy away from the grim realities of the drug trade, none more evident than the mutilated dead bodies hanging from an overpass in Juarez when the task force crosses the border to take a minor player in the cartel back to U.S. jurisdiction.

Before long, Kate begins to realize this task force is not really engaged so much in the war on drugs than it is re-balancing a drug trade that cannot be fully contained and that they are operating outside the boundaries of the law to do it. As one character points out, if 20 percent of Americans insist on snorting cocaine, then the best that can be hoped for is a tightly managed drug trade instead of the escalating violence and senseless killings that have become the norm of the Mexican cartels.

Villenueve, also the director of “Prisoners” a few years ago, is fast proving he knows how to pace a thriller, revealing only as much as necessary to advance the story without spoiling the outcome. It would help to remember what we’re told in the opening credits — that the term “sicario” means hitman in Spanish.

One element in Villenueve’s superb direction is the cinematography of Roger Deakins. Much of it is aerial, showing the vast wasteland on the border in bleached-out tones cast under brilliant azure skies. It’s a desolate beauty that belies the brutality set against it. Kudos also go to Johann Johansson’s thumping electronic score that sets the tone and ratchets up the tension level.

It’s an interesting choice to have the lead character cast as a female, but Blunt holds her own against her male counterparts. The real pillar in the cast is De Toro, who has already won one Oscar for playing a similar character in “Traffic,” yet another movie about the war on drugs. It’s evident his character has an undercurrent of tragedy, and how that revenge plays out is riveting.

With “Black Mass” opening last week and now this movie, the fall season is off to a very strong start. There have been more than a few movies in the last decade that dealt with the drug war, but this is the definitive one, not only for its filmcraft, but also for a terrific story that probably contains more truth to it than we would ever want to know.