For most of its two hours, Sicario is a tense, intriguing, challenging film. It's dramatic and unsettling.
Then it loses faith in the audience and becomes a video game.
When Sicario deals with scenes of torture, it makes its impact without being explicit. It's Hitchcockian. Its power is implicit. That is its strength.
Then as the film approaches its climax, it overplays gunplay. It replaces ideas with gunfire - explicit and redundant. Repetition decreases the impact. It dilutes what should have been a shattering climax.
Much of the film is underplayed. It's quietly wracking. But it becomes a slap-happy shoot-'em-up. Near the end, nobody - except the audience - even seems to hear the sound of gunfire. It blows credibility away.
It's too bad, because Sicario has a lot going for it. The prevailing theme is challenging - FBI tactical expert Kate Mercer (Emily Blunt) volunteers for a shadowy task force that sets out to disrupt a Mexican drug cartel that is flourishing in her Arizona territory.
The task force seems to lack any moral compass. Kate tries to cling to her sense of legal rights in the face of contagious, brutal lawlessness.
Crucial to the task force are the government "advisor" (Josh Brolin) and a mysterious aide (Benicio Del Toro). They are trying to dismantle a massive drug operation to get the local drug boss (Bernardo P. Saracino) to return to Mexico to reveal the cartel kingpin (Julio Cedillo).
The drug war is vile and rapacious. Menace is everywhere. Both sides have been sucked into the end justifies the means. Law has been rendered useless. Decency has turned to rot. This is not the Marvel world of heroes.
Can Kate survive with her values intact? What is the cost of survival?
The actors beautifully express the vague dimensions of their characters. Blunt stands out as the vessel of strength and vulnerability. Brolin is effective as the confident, canny leader. And Del Toro is especially magnetic as the man who has a life of secrets.
The director Denis Villeneuve creates a palpable world which is nearly out of control. One brilliant sequence is a convoy of police and task force traffic, rushing headlong into an unknown fate. It has the feel of a classic sequence.
If only he hadn't faltered at the end. The climax is weakened by its context, and the final scene is very conventional. It squanders its possibilities.
Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan loses his tight grasp at the end, but his writing up to that point is smart.
Perhaps the star of the film - along with Emily Blunt - is cinematographer Roger Deakins. [Deakins has been nominated for an Academy Award 12 times, but has never won.] His vision is inspired. You know Sicario is being photographed by a master. There are several aerial shots from far above that show a terrain that is vast and vacant.
In one we see the tiny shadow of a plane in the far distance over the wasteland ground. In another we see a screen full of dull rooftops, all alike in their conformity.
Deakins captures the enormity of emptiness.
Damn it, Academy, give Roger an Oscar.
Deakins is the soul of Sicario.
Sicario is a film of a woman in a man's world.
For better or worse, Sicario is Blunted.