Midway through Sicario, the ostensible Department of Defense task force chief Matt Graver (played by Josh Brolin) looks over his shoulder and tells the ever-questioning FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) to "keep watching. Learn. That's why you're here." Macer had just been on a harrowing ride-along with the task force to Juárez, Mexico with the objective of bringing Guillermo Diaz, the brother of Mexican cartel kingpin Manuel Diaz, across the border to El Paso to ultimately "make enough noise" to bring Manuel out of hiding and lead them to their true objective, cartel leader Fausto Alarcon. The mission devolved into a highway border-crossing bloodbath that left Macer shaken and angry at the vagueness surrounding her role in the task force's shadowy objectives, and Graver attempts to sate her desire to be freed from the dark by implying that some greater truth about what was going on around her would reveal itself in time. The statement, however, felt more closely directed at the audience itself. Told through Brolin's signature sideways smirk, director Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Enemy) asks his audience to pay close attention. To wait for it. The surprise is coming.
Villeneuve is aware of audience expectation that not everything is as it seems when it comes to film. Macer may stay in the dark, ultimately told that she's only kept around to clear some red tape governmental issue rather than her value to the mission, but Villeneuve wants us to know that if we pay close enough attention, we may learn something about how the world, or at least a filmic portrayal of the world, works. This is ultimately Sicario's greatest strength as a film: Graver pulls off the line with such easy conviction that even the audience believes that it is her, not we, that will learn something over the course of the film, that she will come to this greater realization that she seeks and that it will have positive effects on the world around her. She is an upstanding law official, never wavering in wanting to do things by the book — in a way coming to represent the book itself by the film's end — but the only thing that she learns is how to survive the frame of the film and that she has no real effect on the world that exists outside of that frame. It will go on, with or without her.
This realization, of course, comes in the form of Benicio Del Toro. As most realizations do. The times when director of photography Roger Deakins points his camera Del Toro's way to capture the enigmatic character Alejandro are the film's more captivating moments. Alejandro quite literally arrives from nowhere, eliciting gradually more fearful glances from Macer, becoming more of a shadowy and frightening presence in the film with each passing scene, becoming that realization not through so much shock and surprise, but by simply fulfilling the promise that his character's haunting presence seems to imply all along. If he is surprising by the film's end, it's only in how far he is willing to go to complete his own objective, which leaves the theater pulsing with fear during his and Macer's final moments together on screen. Del Toro and Blunt both carry the film throughout, an enveloping dark presence and the small light that attempts to find its way through it. Their performances are truly the film's core that carry forth the message that, film or not, sometimes the light isn't going to find its way.
This is ultimately what Sicario stands for, the bleakness that we sometimes can't escape. In fact, it's a bleakness that we often must come to face head-on. Deakins and Villeneuve say this most poignantly at the onset of the film's third act, as the task force is silhouetted against the gorgeous and expansive southwestern sky, colored infinitely by twilight. It's a rare moment of peace and beauty (though the entire film is shot beautifully, from an aesthetic standpoint) that is shattered slowly by their descent and eventual disappearance from the frame, leaving the desert empty and alone. The task force not only evades the beauty's embrace, they dig right into the core of it with their objective; Villeneuve hovers on the empty sky for a few seconds before throwing the viewer headlong into a nightvision firefight inside of a smuggler's tunnel, only meters below the serenity we just witnessed. Perhaps this is what makes Sicario such a harrowing watch: it's hard to sensibly stop and enjoy something like the majesty of a desert sunset when we know all along that the "land is run by wolves," as Alejandro tells Macer in the film's final moments.