Sometimes you can see the shape of a film in the first ten or twenty minutes, as it sets out its characters and central themes and you go "oh, right it's that story". It goes back to the old idea that there are only a few sorts of tales (actually that hasn't gone around the web for a while, so we're probably due an out break of "Disney Princesses as Joseph Campell Archetypes" or something) but is also rooted in the viewers familiarity with story structure. Sometimes, however, a film can pivot from one to the other, leaving you excited or breathless, or just confused. I was left wondering about this after watching Sicario, which goes somewhere unexpected in it's third act and I'm still not totally sure what I think of that.
Sicario opens with setting up both our lead character - Emily Blunts determined and idealistic FBI agent - and the current, brutal state of the war on drugs, as the Feds raid a house with bodies literally stacked in the walls. We're losing, the film says, and the cartels are getting stronger and more ruthless, and law enforcement are short on options. Blunt is recruited/seconded to a until led by Josh Brolin, who we know is unconventional because he wears sandals, apparently, who is tasked on "shaking things up" by disrupting Cartel activity over the border in Mexico, no matter how strictly legal that is. Along for the ride is Benicio del Toro's quietly spoken character-with-a-shady-role-and-past, and the gradually emerging dynamic between the three sets up much of the early film.
The movies stand-out moment comes in this early running, as part of Blunt's first trip across the border to escort an arrested Cartel man back to US Custody. The film tracks the convoy of Federal vehicles and heavy local escort through El Paso, gradually building tension even as everything seems to go to plan until they're on the way back. Then, they're suddenly stranded on the bridge between countries, static in traffic, waiting for an attack they know is coming....and it's fantastic. As a thriller sequence its one of the best I've seen in a long time, and the bit that will, I suspect, outlast everything else in the film.
By this point the shape of the film feels clear. Blunt is the determined innocent thrown into a dirty world and will either escape with her morals intact or be consumed by it. Knowing where a story is going isn't a bad thing either, and thats an important and interesting story, and the setup for it is very solid. And whilst that is, in fact, Blunt's character arc, it's not where the film goes in the final act, chosing instead to follow del Toros' enigmatic and vengeance driven character further into Mexico. The change of focus threw me a little, partly because I thought I knew where it was all going (mostly) and partly because the fate of Blunt and her partner was interesting to me, and ditching them left me wanting.
So in the final analysis what do we have? Well, Sicario is an excellently acted, written and directed thriller with a lot going on within it. It's two main set pieces (the bridge and a later tunnel assault) are really top-notch, edge of the seat moments, too. So overall I rather liked it. That said I'm still conflicted about that final act switch - because the story I got I still liked, but I can't help feel that I lost a story I might have liked more.