From start to finish, Sicario is a masterclass in building tension.

It delivers some of the year’s most gut-wrenching action scenes and refuses to pull any punches. It places the viewer into the centre of some really awful situations and doesn’t let us look away, at times making for a decidedly difficult viewing experience.

Anchored by three sophisticated and understated performances that lend the film’s questions of morality a definite heft, Sicario is a film that will grip you, wind your nerves tight, and stay with you long after the credits roll.

Sicario follows Kate Mercer (Emily Blunt), the leader of a special FBI hostage rescue team. The film opens with one of these rescue attempts, a raid on a house in Arizona that goes awry. Kate and her team take a couple of losses in the fight and uncover something brutal that indicates Mexican drug cartel involvement. Kate then agrees to join a clandestine task force she knows very little about with the promise of getting at the men responsible.

From this point on there is a sense that Kate, and we the viewers, are completely out of our depth. We are introduced to Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and his partner Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro), who are in charge of the operation and both of whom play their cards agonisingly close to their chest.

As the film moves forward to new places and people, we’re left racing to keep up, constantly asking questions and never managing to get the full picture.

In most films this would be frustrating, and it threatens to become so here, but what keeps it together is that we’re sharing this experience with the main character, and Blunt’s performance perfectly mirrors the feelings of the viewer. As such, rather than lose interest and stop paying attention, we cannot help but huddle closer to Kate and invest in her character.

The film never stops building tension, lending a sense of constant movement towards something. It applies the slow-burn to great effect: the film transitions through imposing wide-shots layered over a grinding bass line that will loosen your teeth a little.

Of course there are the action scenes, but it is in the quieter moments, where the soundtrack and the dialogue alone keep tightening the knot of tension in your stomach, that Sicario really shows its value.

When it has to go loud, Sicario goes loud. Each action scene is shot in a way that makes the viewer feel claustrophobic, keeping us close to Kate and making us more aware of what we can’t see than what we can. The gunshots are absolutely deafening and each gunfight overwhelms the senses.

All of the film’s best elements come together in one sequence in particular: a scene consisting of a drive through the city of Juarez. The vastness of the city weighs down on the audience from our view from inside the car, a sense of dread slowly settling over us as scenes of brutal cartel violence pass by and the city begins to feel like a very dangerous place, the sequence culminating in perhaps the most intense traffic jam ever committed to film.

Emily Blunt is as good as she has ever been as Kate Mercer, bringing a finely balanced blend of toughness and vulnerability, of idealism and determination to the character. Benicio del Toro gives a nuanced, laconic performance as Alejandro, a questionable character of clear single-mindedness whose hidden identity and motive drive the film forward towards the end. Josh Brolin is assured playing Matt, a charming but instantly suspicious character who spends much of the movie looking like he’s finding it far too easy to justify the means with the ends.

Sicario’s story occupies itself with the difficult questions surrounding the conflict between US law enforcement and the cartels that traffic drugs across the Mexican border.

Matt is concerned with cutting out the root of the problem, fighting fire with fire. He and Alejandro apply questionable methods throughout and begin to indicate an ulterior motive, and a revelation during the film’s conclusion is sure to leave the viewer with their own opinions on a problem for which there are no easy solutions.

The film does well to avoid drawing any clear lines between good sides and bad, but only takes short glances at how organised crime affects the people of Mexico, who are surely the true victims in all this.

There are stronger depictions of America’s war on drug trafficking to be found elsewhere, but luckily Sicario’s themes and characters are strong enough to be regarded more broadly than as specific to this topic.

The cinematography is crisp and defined, and the direction is taut and gripping. Sicario could be the best thriller of the year.

Rating: 8/10

Age 15 certificate

Running time: 121 mins

By Thom Whyte

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