Sicario, the new film by the French Canadian director Denis Villeneuve, is in effect two separate movies. One is terrific and one quite good, but the two coexist in uneasy tension.
The first movie-within-the-movie, which takes up two thirds or so of the overall running time, is essentially a war film involving two nations—the United States and Mexico—that are not technically at war. On one side is the Sonora drug cartel; on the other, a variety of elusively defined covert U.S. agencies and one moderately bewildered FBI agent.
The film opens with a bravura sequence, as that FBI agent, Kate Mercer (Emily Blunt), and members of her heavily armed kidnap-response team converge on an unprepossessing house in the Phoenix suburb of Chandler, Arizona. The team makes its entrance by bursting into the living room. In a tank. Once the gunfire subsides, it turns out that there are no kidnappees on the premises to rescue. But stashed within the walls of the house are dozens of decomposing corpses that loom like hellish apparitions, quasi-mummified and with plastic bags cinched tight over their heads.
A special task force is charged with dealing with the root sources of what the television news is calling the “House of Horrors.” And owing to her reputation as a “thumper,” someone who’s “been kicking in doors since day one,” Kate is invited to join on behalf of the FBI. The head of the task force is Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), who is vaguely described to Kate as a “DoD consultant.” He is irreverent enough to attend high-level meetings in a T-shirt and flip-flops, and important enough to have no one mention it.