TIFF: 'Sicario,' Evoking 'Traffic' Memories, Could Be Benicio Del Toro's Oscars Ticket

Sicario, an eye-opening, edge-of-your-seat thriller about America's war on drugs and the compromises it takes to wage it, will have its North American premiere this evening at the Toronto International Film Festival. It will be four months after its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, two years after director Denis Villeneuve brought the similarly intense Prisoners and Enemy to TIFF and one week before Lionsgate releases it in the U.S.

The film stars Emily Blunt as an idealistic, reserved FBI agent who volunteers to serve on a special task-force about which she is told little other than that it will get her closer to the root of the drug war that recently claimed the lives of several colleagues. In this new capacity, she answers to a smug but capable senior officer played by Josh Brolin and works alongside a mysterious, haunted Mexican national played by Oscar winner Benicio Del Toro.

The film's subject matter, harrowing vibe and excellent use of Del Toro — easily one of the best actors in the world — all evoke memories of 2000's Traffic, which was nominated for best picture and bagged Oscars for director Steven Soderbergh and, in the supporting race, Del Toro. But, in many respects, the film is more similar to another best picture nominee, 2012's Zero Dark Thirty, not least in its depiction of a female intelligence officer (Oscar-nominated Jessica Chastain in the older film) as poker-faced, tough as nails and able to hang with the men.

The one great difference is that the mission chronicled in Zero Dark Thirty is accomplished (which is very satisfying for a viewer), whereas the mission chronicled in Sicario seems ever more impossible the closer one gets to it (which isn't).

Sicario may be too brutally violent, and lacking in star-power, to snag the same number and caliber of Oscar noms that Traffic did, and Blunt's own prospects will probably be hindered by the unexpressive nature of her character (she does most of her acting in her eyes and only gets to explode a few times). Del Toro, on the other hand, has a character arc of the sort that actors dream of, culminating in a scene for the ages, and he handles it all masterfully. I fully expect him to be in serious contention in the same Oscar category that he won 15 years ago — perhaps alongside cinematographer Roger Deakins, who — criminally — is still in search of his first win, and also merits serious consideration.