Benicio Del Toro has played movie characters on both sides of the Mexican drug war: he was the last honest cop standing in Mexico in Traffic, and he depicted Columbian drug lord Pablo Escobar in Paradise Lost.

In Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario (Mexican slang for hitman), Del Toro plays Escobar’s ghost. Taylor Sheridan’s screenplay tries to imagine what it would be like if Escobar re-entered a game whose power centre has moved to the borders of the US. What might the Colombian, who died in a shootout in 1993, and whose Medellin cartel self-destructed soon after, make of the levels of brutality in Mexico that exceed the imaginations of the most lurid-minded scriptwriters?

The Grand Guignol worthy deaths that characterise the war between narcotics suppliers, Mexican authorities and American anti-drug agents have produced reams of reportage, documentaries and books. Heli, Mexican filmmaker Amal Escalanate’s independent feature in 2013, was a disturbing exploration of the horrors that await those who try and oppose the Mexican drug czars. (They include public beheadings and severe torture.) Sicario is a far more stylised account, but it does not stint on the body count. In the astounding opening sequence, a team of American officers raid a possible warehouse and find more than they bargained for.

Among the officers is Kate (Emily Blunt), whose integrity and fighting skills make her a prime candidate for an operation in Mexico that has been organised by Josh Brolin’s smooth government consultant. Along for the ride is Del Toro’s Alejandro, whose knowledge of the terrain and unique interrogation methods come handy in leading the team into Juarez in Mexico, where they will try and take down the leading cartel.

The narrative is consistently compelling but not always convincing, and the moralising rings hollow, but Villeneuve’s sure-footed direction and proven ability to create an atmosphere of unrelenting and unbearable dread carry through from the opening scene till the closing frames. Roger Deakins proves yet again that he is one of the most remarkable cinematographers in the business through his richly flavoured camerawork, compositions and use of light and shadow. Deakins also shot Villeneuve’s Prisoners, and both movies share an ability to convey meaning through purely cinematic tools rather than dialogue and exposition.

The performances are as vivid as the atmospherics: Blunt plays Kate, the movie’s conscience and the innocent who will soon be mounted for slaughter, with fierce courage; Brolin is fabulously amoral; Del Toro glides through the proceedings with the ease with which he has played any number of characters over the years. His Alejandro conveys watchfulness, intelligence and mystery. When the final bullets have been fired, Sicario belongs to this lone hitman, who is trying to re-organise the universe into a moral order that is simpler, more easily recognisable, and less vicious than at present.