Sicario, which translates as hitman in Spanish, is tautly-paced and expertly-scripted by Taylor Sheridan, who sidesteps glib solutions to a complex global epidemic.
Instead, he skilfully weaves together sinewy subplots involving morally flawed characters on both sides of the Mexican border, building up a richly detailed picture of the blurred lines between authorities and the traffickers.
Desperation drips like sweat from every expertly crafted frame and French-Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve heightens our discomfort with thrillingly orchestrated action set pieces including a mesmerising finale that exposes sins under the cover of darkness using night vision and thermal imaging cameras.
At the blackened heart of the film is a tour-de-force performance from British actress Emily Blunt, whose steely-nerved heroine might have to sacrifice more than her idealism in the crucible of machismo and political double-dealing.
She plays Kate Macer, part of the FBI’s Special Weapons and Tactics team, who are at the forefront of the war against drugs on American soil.
Flanked by her partner Reggie Wayne (Daniel Kaluuya), Kate storms a safe house and uncovers dozens of rotting corpses.
The character then heads to El Paso for her briefing, where she learns that she will be venturing on to Mexican soil.
Bullets fly and Kate’s conscience is spattered in blood as she witnesses first-hand shocking brutality in violation of the laws she vowed to uphold.
Sicario gradually tightens the screws on frayed nerves, reaching a crescendo with the extraction of an informant from Ciudad Juarez.
Blunt is terrific in a physically and emotionally demanding role, clashing with Brolin’s cold and pragmatic leader, who believes the means always justify an end that is favourable to the US.
Johann Johannsson’s atmospheric soundtrack creates a furious tempo that Villeneuve matches with flourishes of directorial brio.