The opening scene of the latest film from Denis Villeneuve (“Prisoners,” “Enemy”) looks a lot like a display in the controversial traveling “educational” exhibit Bodies: The Exhibition, which began touring the country in 2005. An FBI kidnap-response squad raids a house in Arizona and instead of hostages discovers dozens of decaying bodies hidden behind the drywall. The scene, shot by Villeneuve’s frequent collaborator, cinematographer Roger Deakins, is close and grotesque. An FBI agent runs from the dark house, gasping for breath, and vomits in the yard. The shed in the backyard, rigged with explosives, self-destructs, sending debris toward the camera.
These aren’t the last, nor the most grotesque of the dead bodies in the film. When agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), the head of the previous squad, is hand-picked by Matt (Josh Brolin), the de facto leader of a ghost team, her first assignment is to help extradite the brother of a cartel bigwig from a Mexican jail. She must travel with the team to Juarez, a city where the underbelly of its highway overpasses are decorated with mutilated — and, as they are filmed through Deakins’ expert lens, balletic — naked bodies. They’re strung up to send a message. It’s probably how Damien Hirst trims his Christmas trees.
The ghost team’s strategy is to use the brother as bait to lure cartel head Manuel Díaz (Bernardo Saracino) out of hiding. Covert members of the CIA, DEA, a militarized SWAT team and an even more mysterious operative named Alejandro (Benicio del Toro) are on board, identified only by their uniforms: SWAT in desert camo, Matt in flip flops and body armor. Their procession, in official black SUVs is about as fast as word of mouth in the small Mexican town. The resultant chase is stunted, slowed to a crawl by traffic at the border crossing, and every other car contains potential liberators of their captive. Sweaty panic leads to opening fire and a blood bath amid the hundreds of bystanders, not all of them innocent. Just another day in Juarez.
In her previous role as squadron leader, Kate was efficient, competent, but in going by the book was always a step behind the criminals, left to gather the bodies and clean up the mess. She and the viewers are led to believe she may be the linchpin of this new loose group. But she’s kept out of witness interviews in which Alejandro interrogates the prisoner using only an unopened bottle from the water cooler and a complete lack of physical personal space or a single wetted finger in the ear. As a result, the final revelation isn’t as surprising or satisfying as it should be, but watching Del Toro’s Alejandro walk away makes up for some of that.