Films about drug lords and the cops who pursue them are a dime a dozen.
But Quebec native Denis Villeneuve’s “Sicario,” opening Friday, is in many ways more like an art film than a big-budget studio effort.
While it has big-budget elements — including an A-list cast with Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin and Benecio Del Toro — “Sicario” (drug slang for “hit man”) is more about establishing a mood of dread and moral ambivalence.
It slowly dawns on the film’s protagonist, an idealistic FBI agent played by Blunt, that the special task force she has joined has permission to break the law to enforce it.
That Villeneuve’s film would be out of the ordinary was predictable given his track record. He first gained international attention with his Oscar-nominated “Incendies” (2010), the story of Canadian siblings who go to the war-torn Middle East to unearth the troubled past of their late mother.
His “Prisoners” (2013) featured Hugh Jackman as a father who kidnaps, imprisons and tortures the man he believes is responsible for his daughter’s disappearance.
“Sicario” presents a conundrum: If the only way we can defeat drug lords is by adopting their vicious methods, haven’t they already won?
“What I liked about this project is that it was raising some very serious questions,” Villeneuve said. “It’s a terrible situation. The war on drugs made these drug cartels so powerful. If drugs were legal, they would be out of business.
“But these drugs remain illegal, and so governments have to react. How do they react? Do they have to become as violent as the criminals to get anything done? Is that the right way to deal with this?”
Villeneuve sees that question applying well beyond the war on drugs.
“How do you deal with ISIS? They’re obviously insane. Do we need to use a level of violence that equals theirs? Do we need to become monsters, too, just to deal with it? How do you get out of those cycles of violence? I have no answers. But ‘Sicario’ at least raises the question.”
Few films take such advantage of the natural and man-made landscape. Villeneuve fills “Sicario” with aerial shots of the desert Southwest, capturing the vastness of the battlefield on which the drug war is being fought.
These are contrasted with scenes set in the border town of Juarez, Mexico, where rickety man-made structures have crept over the hills like a metastasizing cancer.
“The idea was to contrast the natural landscape with the way humans deal with it. The U.S.-Mexico border … what exactly does that mean? It’s an imaginary line, but it represents two totally different realities.
“I like the idea of stepping from an American suburb, a very organized world, and suddenly finding yourself in a very chaotic world just a few hundred feet away.”
One of the film’s first shots of Juarez shows naked headless bodies dangling from a highway overpass. Machine gun fire echoes across the city.
“The very sad thing is that it’s not an exaggeration,” Villeneuve said. “It happens a lot. The movie shows just a glimpse of the huge amount of violence happening, all because of the drug trade.
“The people there live in fear. I cannot imagine what it’s like to deal with that. It’s as dramatic as any war zone. Just a few years ago Juarez was declared the most dangerous city in the world — just a few yards away from the U.S.”
The blame for all this?
“Well, we’re the consumers. Anybody who takes illegal drugs has some responsibility for this situation.”
Villeneuve isn’t resting on his laurels. He’s already deep in post-production on “Story of Your Life,” about a linguist assigned to determine if space aliens who have come to Earth are benign or malevolent.
“I’ve wanted to do science fiction for 35 years. After the success of ‘Prisoners’ the studios asked what I wanted to do next. One of the things you can do in Hollywood that I can’t do back home in Canada is big science fiction.”
And he’s beginning work on the new “Blade Runner” project, a spinoff of the hugely influential 1982 cult classic.
“Being asked to direct the new ‘Blade Runner’ was the biggest surprise of my life,” he said. “It’s a really strong compliment that the producers and Ridley Scott are trusting me. Now I’ve got to earn that privilege.”
“The Walk”: Philippe Petit’s 1974 high-wire walk between the World Trade Center towers was the subject of an Oscar-winning documentary, “Man on Wire.” Now writer/director Robert Zemeckis (“Back to the Future,” “Forrest Gump”) offers a fictional take on the tale. Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars. Opens Wednesday.
“Sleeping With Other People”: Local hero Jason Sudeikis and Alison Brie star in Leslye Headland’s raunchy romance about best friends who struggle to keep their relationship platonic. Friday at the Tivoli.
“Goodnight Mommy”: In this German film, brothers come to believe their mother, wrapped in bandages after cosmetic surgery, has been replaced by another woman. Some say it has the makings of a horror classic. Friday at the Screenland Crossroads.
“Finders Keepers”: Doc focuses on the decadelong feud between the drug addict who lost his amputated leg in a plane crash and the hillbilly Barnum who wants to put it on display. Friday at the Glenwood Arts.