By Kevin P. Sullivan
Updated August 18, 2015 at 12:00 PM EDT
Richard Foreman Jr

“When I finished reading the screenplay, my hands, I was sweating,” says director Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners). “I was lacking oxygen in my lungs.” Perhaps just as shocking, the script was from a novice screenwriter, actor Taylor Sheridan, best known for his role as Deputy Chief David Hale on the FX series Sons of Anarchy. “I said to myself, ‘Oh, God, I cannot believe I’m falling in love with that story. It’s so powerful, but it’s going to be so dark.'”

Sicario stars Emily Blunt as Kate Macer, an FBI agent drafted into a shady anti-drug-cartel task force run by a cagey cowboy of an elite government agent (Josh Brolin) and a Mexican national (Benicio Del Toro) whose intentions—and allegiances—are unclear. (The title, pronounced See-CAR-ee-oh, is the Spanish word for “hitman.”) Ultimately, everything Kate thinks she knows about her world, her government, and herself will be ripped away. “It’s a powerful tale about morality and the underground movements from the CIA,” Villeneuve, 47, says. “It’s a story that could have been set in Africa or the Middle East, but it’s just at the door of the United States, and there’s so much violence and so much chaos.”

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It’s a gritty tale that also centers on a female protagonist, a rarity that presented the director with an opportunity and a challenge. “I didn’t want a woman who would act like a man,” he says. “I wanted a woman who would find her strength in a masculine world.” Blunt, 32, had proved she could do that, and more, in 2014’s Edge of Tomorrow, the sci-fi action film that the British actress effectively stole right out from under Tom Cruise. Making that movie prepared her for whatever a film might toss her way. “I was thrown into the deep end of action,” she says. “Anything else is like a baby paddling pool.”

That attitude was put to the test on Sicario. In one pivotal scene, Kate is forced into a secret pitch-black tunnel running between Mexico and the U.S., and Villeneuve and his legendary Prisoners cinematographer, 12-time Oscar nominee Roger Deakins (Skyfall, No Country for Old Men, A Beautiful Mind), decided to shoot it in total darkness, too. In a maze built in Albuquerque, N.M., specifically for the movie, Deakins filmed scenes with thermal-image cameras and night vision. The narrow shafts allowed for camera placement only directly in front of or directly behind the actors, and the low ceilings caused a few sore backs, especially for the 6′ 2 ” Del Toro. For Blunt’s Kate, the setting is thematic and literal. “It’s the expression of the character’s journey,” Villeneuve says. “In that scene, she is going underground and she enters a new side of what she knows about her own reality.”

Richard Foreman

The film, which earned raves at the Cannes Film Festival in May, is already generating Oscar buzz in all the major categories, including Best Actress. Despite all the action in the movie, the power and emotion are in Kate’s internal journey. “She’s a female cop, and she’s doing the best she f—ing can in a situation that is impossible,” Blunt says. “You don’t really have the kick-ass things where you throw a punch and say the perfect thing and know the right comeback. It’s not that kind of film. It’s a stripping down of somebody’s morals.”

Often movies this harrowing to watch are just as exhausting to make, but Blunt says Villeneuve did not project his sweaty-palmed reaction to the script onto the filmmaking process. “Denis is very egoless, maybe the smallest ego I’ve come across, director-wise,” she says. “As an actor, I’m learning—as I’m getting older and doing this for longer—you want somebody who listens and creates an atmosphere that fills you with confidence, because you can try anything. Then everyone can be the best that they can be.”

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  • Movie
  • R
  • 120 minutes
  • Denis Villeneuve