Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin and Benicio del Toro head up film about shadowy allegiances in the war on drugs

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The word “sicario” is Spanish for hitman, but it sounds like a condition: “I’m not feeling well, I’m suffering from sicario.” Or maybe that’s just the sensation you get coming out of “Sicario.”

This dense, twisty, unsettling, nerve-racking thriller has that kind of effect. It’s about lies and truths, lies packed within truths and questions about what constitutes either, and it’s designed to keep viewers off balance and at attention. By the end, it packs a death stare so potent it will make you want to turn a blind eye to the shadowy brutality of its real-world horrors.

Emily Blunt is Kate Macer, an FBI agent near the U.S.-Mexican border who, as the film opens, discovers a nightmare drug den packed tight with decaying corpses. She’s enlisted by a team of government officials — including Matt Graver (Josh Brolin, never cooler or more dialed in), who, with his eyeglasses, floppy haircut and sandals looks, like he could lead the office softball team, and Alejandro Gillick (an understated, menacing Benicio del Toro), whose affiliations are unclear — and joins a joint task force assigned with taking down a Mexican drug cartel.

That’s the set-up, and Macer is kept at bay as she asks questions and receives vague answers as to what they’re doing and on whose authority they’re doing it on.

But it’s clear something is off, and Macer is the audience conduit as she falls deeper inside the rabbit hole.

Channeling Steven Soderbergh’s “Traffic,” director Denis Villeneuve (“Prisoners”) stages several breakneck sequences, including a hyper-tense standoff at the Mexican border. But his best moment is a quiet one involving the deep wells in Del Toro’s eyes.

Like those peepers, “Sicario” is unflinching and unrelenting. And it’s one of the best movies of the year.

agraham@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/grahamorama

‘Sicario’

GRADE: A

Rated R: for strong violence, grisly images, and language

Running time: 121 minutes

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