DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
Sicario is an ancient word for assassin that's been resurrected by Colombian and Mexican drug cartels to describe a modern-day hit man. It's also the name of a new film about a military task force on the hunt for a notorious drug lord. The film stars Emily Blunt as an FBI agent, along with Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: From watching his films, it's clear the Quebec-born director Denis Villeneuve hates violence on a level so visceral he has to distance himself from what he's showing. He mourns his own images. His tone lifts the action thriller "Sicario" far above movies of its ilk. The posters show top-billed Emily Blunt in combat apparel in the foreground, looking pensive but poised for battle, in control. That's not the case in the movie itself. The FBI agent she plays, Kate Macer, is like Alice in cartel land. She falls into a world of moral chaos.
The film is stupendous, and I'm guessing it's meant as an answer to "Zero Dark Thirty," which suggested going over to the dark side was the only way to win the war on terror. This war - on drugs - has had in the movie's view a few more decades to prove itself unwinnable, and its frontlines make an even starker prism through which to view the strategies of U.S. intelligence agencies.
"Sicario" opens in bloody confusion with a thunderous assault on a compound said to be packed with drug war hostages. Blunt's Kate is still shaking from the subsequent deaths of her colleagues when her FBI boss, played by Victor Garber, summons her into a room with a mysterious intelligence officer named Matt, played by Josh Brolin. The discussion turns to the deadliest of Mexican drug lords, Diaz.
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JOSH BROLIN: (As Matt) We're going to go see Guillermo.
EMILY BLUNT: (As Kater Macer) Diaz's brother.
BROLIN: (As Matt) That's the one.
BLUNT: (As Kater Macer) Where is he?
BROLIN: (As Matt) Oh, he's in El Paso area.
BLUNT: (As Kater Macer) What's our objective?
BROLIN: (As Matt) To dramatically overreact. Kate, you must volunteer for an interagency task force. Think very hard before you respond. You want to be a part of this?
BLUNT: (As Kater Macer) Do we get an opportunity at the men responsible for today?
BROLIN: (As Matt) The men who are really responsible for today, yeah.
EDELSTEIN: Matt's line about going to the El Paso area turns out to be whoppingly incomplete. The destination is over the bridge of the Americas, from El Paso to Juarez, Mexico, a virtual war zone. Crossing that bridge means potentially violating domestic and international laws. Why, Kate asks, are they doing this, and who is the man called Alejandro, played by Benicio Del Toro, who sits across from her in planes and armored vehicles in silence, staring at nothing.
For most of "Sicario's" running time, the narrative is murky, oblique, taking place in the aftermath of decisions made somewhere else, based on events unfolding over decades. As Kate comes to understand she's a cog in a black op, Blunt does more and more with her eyes, her open mouth, her body that goes one way, its muscles trained to obey while her mind cries whoa. It's a beautifully reactive performance.
Around her, director Villeneuve, the great expressionist cinematographer Roger Deakins and composer Johann Johannsson create a scrambled, alien world in which harsh-lit desert landscapes give way to black tunnels. When Kate descends into one, Johannsson comes up with a noise that's like the Earth giving up a final groan.
Villeneuve doesn't linger on the cruelties as he did in his great 2010 film "Incendies," partially set in an unnamed Mid-East country, much like Lebanon, but every road leads to hell. A subplot centers on the young Mexican son of a man who comes and goes mysteriously, plainly riddled with anxiety.
We don't know where the dad fits into the story until later, but we get the point that Mexico, since overtaking Colombia as the dominant player in Latin-American terror, is no country for old or young men or women or children.
The lens of "Sicario" finally settles on Del Toro, whose sad, heavy eyes don't prepare us for the swiftness of his brutality. He wreaks havoc on our sympathies. We dread the failure of his mission while dreading the impact of his success. More I can't say, but for a moviegoer, it's an agonizing limbo. Although Villeneuve's portrait of U.S. drug war tactics is ugly, he portrays them more in sorrow than anger. He mourns the long-term costs of short-term gains. "Sicario" works like gangbusters as an action thriller, except you're haunted by what thrilled you.
DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine.
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DAVIES: Five years ago, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg went on "Oprah" and pledged $100 million toward new programs to help Newark, N.J.'s, failing schools. On Monday's show, journalist Dale Russakoff tells us about the outcome of that experiment and what it tells us about school reform. Russakoff's new book is called "The Prize." Hope you can join us. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.