The moment that Johann Johannsson's screaming electronic score assaults your eardrums with slow crescendos of distilled dread, you realize that "Sicario" will not be your standard Mexican drug lord action thriller.
The Icelandic composer lays down musical tracks more appropriate to accompany invasions by crab monsters, body snatchers, mole people, Triffids or saucer people. It doesn't seem to match a crime drama about idealistic FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) trying to fit into the testosterone-heavy organization dedicated to protecting the United States from the influences of the Mexican cartels.
"Sicario"★ ★ ★ ★
Starring: Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin, John Bernthal
Directed by: Denis Villeneuve
Other: A Lionsgate release. Rated R for language, violence. At the River East 21 and ICON in Chicago, plus the Century 12 Evanston. Opens wide Oct. 2. 120 minutes.
Hey, give it some time, say, six or seven minutes.
By then, Macer and a SWAT team bust into a cartel-run Arizona house, shoot some drug lord henchmen, then make a chilling discovery hidden within the walls: 42 corpses wrapped up in plastic, like modern-day mummies.
In this single scene, we cross into "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" turf, a scary, alien place that becomes a living horror story rank with unspeakable violence and disposable lines between civilization and savagery.
Harshly violent, "Sicario" is about violence itself, and how both the cartel and American forces wield it for their purposes. The movie's jarring unpredictability and blunt imagery come the closest to a "Silence of the Lambs" vibe that I've witnessed since 1991.
Denis Villeneuve's intense, gut-wrenching movie makes an ideal follow-up to the director's powerful 2013 thriller "Prisoners," starring Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal as men searching for two kidnapped girls.
From opening to close, "Sicario" moves like a panther with efficiency and purpose. Reunited with his brilliant "Prisoners" cinematographer Roger Deakins -- providing gritty, novel imagery that engulfs us with danger -- Villeneuve creates one of the best movies of 2015, a de facto terror tale that tests nothing less than our humanity.
After discovering the gruesome "house of horrors," the agile Macer draws the attention of Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), an American agent who clearly enjoys his work, perhaps too much. He recruits her to come with him and other agents on a covert mission to destabilize the Diaz family, a huge cartel operating both sides of the U.S. and Mexican border.
Macer has a partner, Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya), rejected by Graver for the mission, not because he's black, inquisitive or demanding. Graver needs Macer for a specific purpose revealed much later. For most of the film, Graver keeps Macer in blissless ignorance, telling her nothing more than she needs to know.
Then comes Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), a mysterious former Colombian prosecutor who holds great sway over the American agents for reasons she doesn't understand.
"Nothing will make sense to your American ears," he tells her, in effect, warning us viewers to be prepared for future shocks.
Macer, Graver, Alejandro and the team drive a caravan into Mexico where Macer sees many mutilated naked corpses dangling from the highway overpasses. It's the cartel's show of power over the citizens and government.
In the movie's showcase sequence, the team transports a cartel witness across the border, but the cars get stuck in traffic. Graver and Alejandro see what Macer cannot -- the telltale signs that cartel hitmen are moving into position to stop them.
All throughout "Sicario" (a slang word for "hitman"), Blunt's striking, luminescent performance as a smart, dedicated proponent of laws, process and justice ranks as one of the year's best female action leads, a voice of sanity nearly squelched by the men's compromised sense of duty to do what they think necessary.