TORONTO -- "Nothing will make sense to your American ears." That's Alejandro, the cool, contained and deadly enigma played by Benicio Del Toro in the new borderland thriller Sicario.
Lean, smart and excruciatingly intense, Sicario is the latest film to dramatize the hazy morality and extreme measures that accompany narco-terrorism and the war on drugs. The rules, as Alejandro suggests, are malleable, the truth elusive.
Alejandro is the taciturn right-hand man of Matt (Josh Brolin), who might be CIA, or Defense Department, or something else. They entice straight-shooting FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) with a shady border mission and the chance to make a dent in the cartels. Kate wants to fight the battle by the book, but the book, in this case, is rather unbound.
This isn't Del Toro's first tour of duty in the drug wars. He played Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar in Escobar: Paradise Lost and a cartel enforcer in Savages. He won an Oscar playing a Mexican policeman in Steven Soderbergh's panoramic drug trade drama Traffic. But he saw something fresh in Sicario, a different take that spares no one on any side of the conflict.
"I thought the script was original, the way it shows the desperate approach by the CIA and the FBI, who break every law and do whatever they want to get their objective," Del Toro says in an interview at the Toronto International Film Festival. "In the history of the U.S., that's been done many times with covert operations going to other countries."
That script, by Taylor Sheridan, is but one piece of Sicario's potent puzzle. Director Denis Villeneuve continues to develop as a master of atmospheric dread. Cinematographer Roger Deakins, a 12-time Oscar nominee, conjures a beautiful barrenness in the film's Southwestern landscape. The score, by Jóhann Jóhannsson, drills down to low, foreboding tones.
Sicario is an exceptionally well-made film; early response has been so positive that a sequel is already in development. (The movie industry isn't known for leaving well enough alone.)
The main ingredient is suspense derived from uncertainty, and a palpable sense of moral ambiguity fit for a war declared against an amorphous enemy. The recent Netflix series Narcos, which follows the hunt for the aforementioned Escobar, has some of that ambiguity. So does Traffic, in which Del Toro's character works for a Mexican general who becomes the country's drug czar even as he runs a massive cartel.
The borderland setting of Sicario ups the ante. The action takes place neither here nor there. The terrain and jurisdiction of Sicario are indefinable and riddled with rich confusion.
"It's really not the U.S. or Mexico," says local actor Julio Cedillo, who plays a small but crucial part in Sicario and hails from the Mexican state of Durango. "It's its own little world, and it's really easy to paint it black and white. But it's not. There's so much gray, and I think that's what this film shows so well. There's no good guy or bad guy."
It's a land of ghosts, like the haunted and haunting Alejandro, who understands how little sense it all makes.