If the Oscars nominate Sicario for a best picture award next January, it will be one more example against the argument that “Hollywood” is nothing but a bunch of looney liberals who promote a far leftist agenda. A few handicappers currently have it as a top tier contender. The film is about the U.S. government’s escalating tactics to stop narcotics from crossing the border between Mexico and the States. It is Zero Dark Thirty for the war on drugs, playing like Dick Cheney’s wet dream. The movie is a perfect representation of how neocons like Cheney and his ilk envision prosecuting not only the war on terror, but all wars. They alone get to decide what the rules of engagement are. Sicario is a reactionary, far-right fantasy that’s all the more depressing because it’s probably not that different from reality.
The film begins with FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) en route to raid a house in Arizona where a Mexican drug cartel is suspected of holding kidnap victims. When the raid is over, Macer and her SWAT team make a gruesome discovery: the cartel hid dozens of bodies inside the walls. The situation gets even worse when several FBI team members are killed by an improvised explosive device rigged in a backyard shed. Macer’s boss introduces her to Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), a mysterious figure who is leading a new task force. The explosion and deaths in Arizona have changed the game, Graver explains, and they need to take the fight to the cartels. He wants Macer to join his team, but she has to volunteer. She does, with the stipulation that she can bring her partner Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya) along. Their convictions are soon put to the test. Witnessing blatant disregard for the rule of law and an invasion of sovereign territory, Macer eventually suspects the use of torture, as well. All in the name of fighting the war on drugs.
The fact that the Macer character is a woman is a very deliberate choice by screenwriter Taylor Sheridan. In fact, he was asked by prospective backers of the film to rewrite the character as a man. Macer is a student in Sicario. The lessons she learns over the course of the film teach her that while equality has given women a place at the table, it’s still headed by men. She can participate, but in order to do so she must become as ruthless as they are. Whatever doubts Macer has about questions of right and wrong are quickly dispelled when the team takes a trip into the heart of darkness in Juárez, Mexico.
The images of Juárez from the other side of the border fence make the city look like a cage. The dark and foreboding score by musician Jóhann Jóhannsson blends with the voice of Steve Forsing (Jeffrey Donovan), a senior team member, describing to Macer what a hellhole the city is. The images and sounds combine to give the distinct impression that animals are the only thing living inside that cage. While driving through the city to carry out the operation, the team drives past mutilated bodies that a cartel has strung up on a bridge underpass as a message to anyone thinking about questioning their power.
The real life mayor of Juárez released a statement asking for a boycott of the film and saying that Sicario hurts the city’s image and its residents. He’s right, because there is no such thing as nuance in the world of Sicario. Fifteen years ago, the movie Traffic examined the drug trade with a multi-layered approach that considered everything from the toll the drug war takes on law enforcement to governmental policy to the ways society fails drug addicts by treating the problem as a crime-and-punishment issue instead of as a mental health issue. You’ll find none of that in this film.
In Sicario, the old adage rings true: If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Federal law enforcement learned well the lessons of the war on terror, such as when engaging an enemy. The only solution is to hit them hard, then hit them again, and use any tactic necessary. Legality and ethics be damned. One of the stars of Traffic, Benicio Del Toro, appears in Sicario as Alejandro Gillick, the hitman alluded to in the movie’s Spanish title. The character of Gillick is one of those tactics personified, another well-worn maxim best described as “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
Instead of using this plot development as a critique of how the American government makes allies with those as odious as the enemies marked for defeat, screenwriter Sheridan uses it as tacit approval. Any protest Macer or Reggie (a law school graduate) voice about Graver and Gillick’s tactics are totally ineffectual. After each of these protests, Graver sermonizes about how the brutality of the enemy must be met likewise, ending the debate. Besides a sequel to Sicario, which will examine in closer detail the character of Gillick, the actor-cum-screenwriter (he played David Hale on Sons of Anarchy) has several other projects in the works. One involves a Montana ranching family standing their ground against encroaching forces. Another is a fictional examination of the 2012 American embassy attack in Benghazi, Libya – you know, the one that Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives have been using as a way to smear democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton for over a year. Taylor Sheridan might just be his generation’s John Milius, the screenwriter behind authoritarian fever dreams like Red Dawn and Magnum Force.
But Sicario also deserves a begrudging respect, in the same way cinema scholars can appreciate troublesome landmarks in film history like Triumph of the Will and The Birth of a Nation. On a technical level, the film is a masterful achievement. The visceral and emotional impact of Sicario can’t be denied. Twelve-time Oscar nominated cinematographer Roger Deakins proves once again why he’s one of the best in the business. The look of Sicario is gritty and bleak. Director Denis Villeneuve is responsible for a harrowing mise-en-scéne that is equal parts tense and sickening. The depraved depths the drug cartels sink to in order to maintain absolute control over their empires are rendered on screen in dreadful detail.
In the end, Sicario is a horror movie masquerading as an important social issue film, and the talent of all involved is evident on the screen. That they used their talent to advocate a simple “eye for an eye” answer to a very complex question is disappointing, and just as frightening as anything you’ll see in the movie itself.
Why it got 2 stars:
- Sicario is a slick, glossy, darkly beautiful film, but that's not all that counts. Movies, at their core, are all about ideas, and the ideas fueling this one are disturbing and wrong-headed.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- I mentioned the character Steve Forsing in the review. He acts as a sort of narrator for Macer during the raid into Juárez. He's one of those cocky characters who describes horrific violence as if it were an episode of Sesame Street. He's seen too much to be disturbed, and he makes plenty of snide comments to let you know it. I've about had it with this character type. It's been done. Move on.