I recently watched Sicario, last year's dramatic thriller about efforts to bring down a Mexican drug cartel. Emily Blunt stars as an FBI SWAT member who, after a raid so grisly it becomes her "last straw," agrees to assist the CIA in a full-scale operation against the cartel. But it gradually becomes apparent that the task force leader (played by Josh Brolin) may be nearly as corrupt as his targets, and that their special advisor (a menacing Benicio del Toro) has yet another agenda.
If I were judging Sicario only by its bookends -- the first 10 minutes and the last 10 minutes -- it might well be one of the best movies of the decade. The film opens on a tense raid of a suspected drug house, and the discoveries there bring a palpable sense of revulsion. On the flip side, the pivotal final scene of the movie is a perfect encapsulation of the film's murky moral landscape.
But there's about an hour and a half in between those sequences, and it's not nearly as compelling. Certainly, there are some good set pieces to make you sit up and take notice -- in particular an assault filmed in night vision and infrared. But the plot is unexpectedly convoluted. The main character is kept in the dark about what's happening for most of the story, and consequently, so is the audience. The sense of "this is not right" is always clear, but the plot mechanics of moving from A to B to C feel muddy more often than not.
Certainly the movie features some strong performances. Emily Blunt makes a sympathetic journey from righteousness to disillusionment. Benicio del Toro is a terrifying presence, particularly in the final act. Josh Brolin is infuriatingly smug and sanctimonious throughout. And smaller appearances serve the atmosphere well, from the likes of Victor Garber, Jon Bernthal, Jeffrey Donovan, and more. Also effective is a truly ominous musical score by Jóhann Jóhannsson, that cloaks the entire movie in a relentless sense of dread.