Making a film with fine performances, adept direction, first-rate photography and a doltish screenplay is like starting a rock band with no drummer. The result may yield satisfying, even memorable moments. But every time you try to build momentum, the project falls apart.
Take “Sicario.” A Mexican drug cartel identifies FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) and sends a corrupt cop (Jon Bernthal) to torture her to learn what she knows, then kill her. He goes to a bar where she has never been before. By chance, she shows up that night. She gets drunk, takes him home for sex, then realizes his plan when he does an incredibly stupid thing.
Taylor Sheridan, an actor making his screenwriting debut, lets the film down in scene after scene. Whenever director Denis Villeneuve (“Prisoners”) builds suspense, Sheridan dissipates it with another clunker. He changes focus three-quarters of the way through from Kate to another character, and the ending makes most of what precedes it irrelevant.
The title means “hit man” in Mexican Spanish and refers to another character, ruthless Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro). He and CIA spook Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) wreak havoc among Mexican drug gangs by slaughtering members in Texas and Arizona, hoping to provoke a gang boss into bolting to Mexico and leading them to the kingpin.
They enlist Kate’s help for a reason that’s made clear to us eventually – but should have been clear to her from the start – and we’re soon in the moral territory Villeneuve explored more interestingly in “Prisoners.” Presumably decent people, driven by rage and frustration, do (or are asked to do) terrible things outside the law. In this case, we’re likely to side with them unequivocally against drug dealers who hook kids on dope and slaughter families.
All the characters lack complexity. Kate remains the film’s befuddled, faceless conscience, arguing for legal reprisal against bad guys. Matt’s a genial ghoul. Alejandro remains a soft-spoken death machine – Del Toro does this well – and Victor Garber phones in a performance as an FBI boss with hidden motives.
The hero of the piece is Roger Deakins, the great British cinematographer who has been nominated for 12 Oscars (“Prisoners” among them) but never won. We squint through night-vision goggles on a walk through a tunnel, get claustrophobia in small rooms lit with sickly fluorescence, float above the Southwestern mesa like a buzzard waiting for a victim to appear. His visual elements remain crisp, even as the narrative turns to mush.