First and foremost, Sicario proves that Roger Deakins is the best cinematographer working today. Just like a great actor can read from the phone book and make it interesting, Deakins could shoot a corporate training video, and it would be visually enthralling. Fortunately, Sicario gives him a lot more juicy material to work with than a primer on how to keep the fry grease warm at Wendy's. Since it's set on the Mexican border, Deakins gets to create the abstract desert landscapes that made the Coen Brothers' No Country for Old Men and True Grit so rich and beautiful. But he's not content to recreate past glories. Simple dialog scenes get thematically relevant visual treatment, such as the moment when idealistic FBI agent Kate (Emily Blunt) finally confronts CIA contractor Matt (Josh Brolin) about the morally and legally dubious goings-on she's been brought in to fig leaf. Deakins shoots it wide with the actors dead center, their dark uniforms contrasting with the light tans of the scrublands. In the image, as in life, they're small creatures in a huge, hostile world. He shoots one of the film's most visually compelling sequences in night-vision infrared with a beauty most of his peers can't summon in visible light. Deakins has been nominated for Best Cinematographer 12 times, including 2013's Prisoners, which was the first time he collaborated with Sicario director Denis Villeneuve. But he's never won, which is a travesty.
Great as he is, Deakins is just one weapon in the director's full arsenal. The other big gun is Benicio Del Toro as the mysterious Mexican "advisor" Alejandro. Del Toro is a fantastic actor who has been failed by his scripts and direction time and time again. Not so with Sicario. Del Toro constantly undercuts Alejandro's steely, controlled exterior with the tired eyes of a burnout and little touches like a hand that quivers uncontrollably while he sleeps. His internal conflict mirrors Kate's—and by extension, the audience's—uncertainty as to exactly for whom he is working.
Kate is drawn into his world after a spectacularly staged, door-kicking drug raid in Phoenix that uncovers a house of horrors instead of a trap house and leaves two agents dead. She is assigned as a liaison to Brolin's Matt, who we instantly know is a jerk because he is introduced wearing flip-flops in an official meeting. The operation that Matt and Alejandro are running crisscrosses the border with impunity, which is the first red flag for the by-the-book Kate. Even though her character's actions don't really have much effect on the plot, Blunt makes for an extremely effective audience surrogate, and the movie is much better for having her in it to provide a rational point of view. If this had been Michael Mann directing a Miami Vice episode, the trigger-happy cops would be blazing away with impunity, and we would be expected to cheer every time Crockett and Tubbs violated someone's Fourth Amendment rights. Kate points out time and time again that much of what the "good guys" are doing is illegal, only to be talked down to by her male superiors, all of whom assure her that what they are doing is for the greater good. Her personal tension escalates slowly through the film until it explodes in a devastating final scene where Villeneuve lays all of his thematic cards on the table.
That the cops and robbers in the drug war might just be imperfect reflections of each other and that we're just along for the brutal ride is not an uncommon theme, but rarely has it been so well-executed as in Sicario. And even more rare, Villeneuve is able and willing to spell out the toll this Kabuki dance is taking on civil society. Sicario's biggest flaws come when it veers too far into the polemical, but thanks to Deakins, Blunt, and Del Toro, it never falls apart. Afterwards, I found myself thinking of Soderberg's 2000 film Traffic and lamenting how little has changed for the better in 15 years.