There are some police officers who become cops because they want to protect and to serve. Probably not too many, but there are a few. I’ve never, personally, known a cop like that, but I’ve heard of them. On the news.

And I’ve read about them…

I knew a cop, once…Well, I knew him before he became a cop. We went to school together. A nice guy. We were “sort of” friends. We didn’t hang out, but he was in my Senior English class.

Anyway, he didn’t get along with his dad. His dad slapped his mom around. Never any blood. Never a clenched fist. But there was pushing. And yelling. And slapping.

That’s why he wanted to become a cop. He didn’t tell me that, but I knew.

I ran into him, a few years later, at an Aerosmith concert. We talked. He was working undercover, perusing the floor crowd. I knew immediately that he was a cop. That made me sad. Not his chosen profession. I don’t have anything against cops, per se. They have a job to do. Otherwise…Well, you know…Anarchy.

I was sad because he’d changed.

In Denis Villeneuve’s  crime drama, Sicario, we don’t know why Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) became a cop–there is no declaration over beers or reflective pillow talk explaining. There’s just Kate. Unadorned. Steady. Earnest.

She’s not an adrenaline junkie. We know because the first time we see her, we see her scared. Even so she’s the consummate pro. She subdues her fear. She’s under control.

Plus she’s wearing FBI tactical gear. The FBI doesn’t invest in scrubs. Or the mentally unstable.

Her partner, Reggie Wayne (Daniel Kaluuya) is equally earnest. He is protective of Kate even though she out ranks him. He’s not condescending. He’s a friend, nothing more, who worries that Kate’s honesty might hobble her when her cunning matters most.

We are introduced to them when Kate leads a raid on a stash house owned by a wealthy Sonora Cartel lieutenant. There they stumble upon an unexpected cache—about fifty corpses entombed in the walls.

The camera doesn’t linger over the brutality. The violence is realistically hum drum. And horrible.

One body’s head is encased in plastic. Very little can be distinguished about the body. From the clothing, it is most likely male. Medium height. The face is obstructed by a hemorrhage of blood. The pressure of the plastic against bodily fluid and decaying flesh has left a big brown smudge. It has blotted out identity. The camera, reflecting images through Kate’s eyes, returns to this body–one among the many–again…And again.

During the raid, Kate performs with distinction and kills a cartel underling in the line of duty. The stash house it booby-trapped. There is an explosion. A FBI agent’s arm is torn off. He dies. It’s a big story. So big that it attracts the Department of Justice. Various federal big wigs convene and tap Kate to be involved in a multi departmental task force–about fifteen men, she is the only woman– designed to take down the man responsible for the plethora of immigrant corpses on American soil.

The feds don’t want Reggie. Kate does. She won’t go without him. She gets her way.

One of the lead feds is a guy named Matt, an oily character…Yeah, I know. You’re shocked. It helps that he is played by the magnetic Josh Brolin…

Anyway, this Matt guy is obviously CIA. How so? He wears flip flops. Apparently Reggie has seen other oily guys like him in Iraq where he was both soldier and lawyer; guys who brandish badges, the latest “it guns”, and dollar store shower shoes like ironic badges of honor. Matt’s character is a lighthouse beacon flashing Sicaro’s theme:

Here, things are twisted. It has always been this way. It is worse now. 

The here is the Sisters International, more commonly know as the El Paso/Juarez border. Matt and his ambiguous Mexican partner, Alejandro (Benicio del Turo), straddle the desert wasteland with steely cool and blatant impunity, escaping into each others country as the situation dictates. They come and go freely but not easily–especially on Mexico’s side. The government is cooperating, it seems, but the Sonora Cartel hierarchy are understandably upset. They arrange an ambush at a check point resulting in a bloody shootout.

The task force survives unscathed, annihilating the sicarios–Spanish for hitmen. They react like the lethal team of special ops that they are. But their ruthless efficiency unnerves Kate and Reggie. Something bigger than dragging a cartel lieutenant to justice is obviously afoot. Reggie wants them to bail out, but Kate keeps stumbling forward as if she is drawn to the mission against her will–as if she must see for herself evidence that they are real.

“You’re spooks,” she yells at Matt and Alejandro. “Watch and learn,” they say.

Along the way she forms an unexpected bond with Alejandro. It’s not romantic. It’s not even particularly friendly, but there is empathy. Though they prefer their own company, both are comfortable in each others presence. There are a few words shared now and then during cigarette breaks.

“Who are you?” she asks him.

“A prosecutor from Mexico,” he tells her.

“Where do you come from?”

“Columbia,” he says.

The fate of the task force hangs by a thread of legality. Kate is that thread. Her participation ensures the CIA’s jurisdiction is legit. She has been carefully chosen: a decorated, decent female agent, the perfect proxy to hide behind–and to sacrifice if need be for the sake of the real mission. Regime change.

Like Columbia two decades before Mexico has become a narco state. The Sonora Cartel has murdered and tortured it’s way to the top. Even so, it’s members of the board have no idea how to govern. They are too ruthless, even by cartel standards, and when they sanction a series of horrific crimes on the American side it incurs the wrath of the US government.

The government sends black ops into Juarez to assassinate the number three Sonora chieftain and make way for a new US sanctioned cartel to take over. And who is the new boss? The same as the old boss, i.e., the Colombians.

The plan is for the Colombians to resume the control they had in the old days, when they supplied the drugs and the Mexicans distributed them into the United States. In those days, Alejandro was a high ranking Mexican official. When the US disrupted the Medellin Cartel it created a vacuum in which the Mexican cartels were able to become both supplier and distributor. But they became too powerful too quickly–and there was too much competition. Consequently Juarez became the epicenter of unspeakable brutality that threatened to spill over into United States. Alejandro’s wife and daughter became pawns in that brutality and though he was able to escape into Columbia they were left behind to a terrible fate.

Now all that stands between Alejandro and revenge is Kate and her earnest resolve to do the right thing no matter the cost. And Kate can afford the cost because she is an island unto herself. How she became that way we do not know, but she shares the isolation with Alejandro. And the hollowness.

Some critics felt Sicario too laden to be a thriller and they were right. It’s not one. Nor is it an action film. Sicario is a crime drama with some high powered, brilliantly choreographed action sequences. The shoot out at the check point thirty minutes in is an exercise in white knuckles and coronary palpitations. Be that as it may, Director Denis Villeneuve is more interested in a twisted psyche than he is with plot twists and explosions.

Sicario seeks to make you think as it haunts you with ghosts made of flesh and memory. Mission accomplished.