Directed by: Denis Villeneuve
The Plot: We’re told in the opening of Sicario that in the old world of Jerusalem a ‘sicarii’ was a zealot driven by any means necessary to eradicate Roman occupiers from the Holy Land. In Spanish the word also means ‘hitman.’ After surviving a malicious ambush on her DEA team, a semi-young, semi-altruistic agent (Emily Blunt) is brought into the fold of a group of military advisers (Josh Brolin, Benicio Del Toro, Victor Garber, Jeff Donovan) to help put an end to the drug violence on the American side of the border by tracking down and exterminating the leadership of the ultra-lethal Sinaloa drug cartels. Which, for her, means undertaking a campaign both morally ambiguous and charged with great bodily threat.
The Film: To contrast Denis Villeneuve’s new movie on the cartel wars along the Mexican/American border we shouldn’t look to films like The Coen Brothers’ No Country For Old Men, (though Sicario and No Country do share fabled cinematographer Roger Deakins) or Ridley Scott’s dire and marginally sadistic look at cartel policy, The Counselor. Instead Sicario shares a similar tone and structure with late 70’s Vietnam War films – specifically Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. Emily Blunt’s DEA agent, Kate Macer, is thrown into the legally murky world of CIA “advisers” tasked with settling the surge in border violence and hunting down and and eliminating the head of the Sinaloa drug cartel – an unidentified cocaine chieftain known only by the name Fausto. Or is that Faust..?
Josh Brolin’s Matt is exactly the character of man employed by the more proactive operatives in the jungles of Nam in 67′. The guys who would haul suspected VC up into the sky in helicopters and pitch them out – more than likely while wearing flip-flops. Surrounding Brolin are a platoon of Delta Squad soldiers – Orwell’s dogs in brass-studded collars. It’s not that this heavy hand is presented as yet more obnoxious overkill stemmed from American power and pride. Far from it. The cartels operate a ruthlessly gory, full-scale military occupation in Juarez – professional gunslingers and punishers are required.
In a scene slightly reminiscent of the Do Lung bridge scene in Apocalypse Now – the sequence where Martin Sheen’s guys stumble on a crew of drug-fugued GI’s as they defend, lose, and ultimately rebuild the Do Lung bridge in an effort to defend it again – a Delta Force soldier asks Kate if she likes fireworks. She follows him to the roof of the DEA base in El Paso, a city with a murder rate of 16, to look out onto the sprawl of Juarez, a city with nearly 2,000 murdered in the same year, and watches as tracer fire and artillery explosions light up the jaundiced skies over the city.
Villeneuve’s film isn’t so much another movie about the war on drugs as it is a film about war in general.
If you’re looking for the French Canadian filmmaker to hold your hand on his tour through the moral no-fly-zone of borderland drug enforcement – think again. Emily Blunt’s Kate is lost through a major portion of the movie, and we’re right there with her, feeling more than a few steps behind as her handlers charge forward taking prisoners, and as it happens, taking no prisoners. This is a gig where almost no one is willing to reach out and help a new recruit get up to speed, especially if the fish is being anchored by something as clumsy as constitutional law. To prod her along Benicio Del Toro’s Alejandro basically reminds Kate that Fausto kills and kidnaps all along the Mexican border, and that murdering him would “be like discovering a vaccine.” Much later in the film he encourages her to leave the border – a place he calls a “land of wolves” – and find a place where the rule of law still has meaning. It’s not so much a retraction of purpose, but a genuine gesture of goodwill. Get out of Mexico woman, while you still can.
There’s a border run early in Sicario where Kate, her Central Intelligence handlers, and a platoon of Delta Force soldiers illegally procure a cartel agent in Juarez, load him into a caravan of SUV’s, and run him Fallujah-formation (vehicles packed bumper-to-bumper traveling at crazy speed) to the border crossing at El Paso. The two opposing lanes telling the much bigger story – the road to Juarez nearly void of life, the road to El Paso crammed with traffic. Kate’s vehicles are soon forced to a crawl, and finally to a stop in the traffic jam of cars trying to cross into Texas. Alejandro tells her to expect an attack, and every agent in all four vehicles has their rifle sights in scan mode looking for cartel assassins.
The search takes maybe six or seven seconds.
A few lanes over from them are tattooed men packed into cars, gun barrels clearly visible in the side windows. Villeneuve probably could have wrung this sequence for every last drop of tension and dramatic flair, but he doesn’t. Instead, when the inevitable shooting starts the other citizens on the crossing neither leave their vehicles screaming, or slam their cars into each other in a mad bid to escape this sudden flair-up of violence. Either their ears have either been deafened to the sound of gunfire in this part of the territory for the past twenty years, or they’re just unwilling to forfeit their position in line to get into the States – in either case this bout of highway killing takes on an almost polite, gentleman’s quality.
Sicario is at times a violent film. Villeneuve smartly cuts away from the more unsettling stuff leaving you to fill in the grisly details on your own. At the same time he’s focused on keeping his crime drama from feeling gratuitous and superficial. In fact there really isn’t anything superficial about the events in Sicario – even down to the wounds its characters bear. As Brolin tells one captive in the film: “You know what’s nice about how beat to a pulp you are? Nobody’s going to notice a few more scratches..” A captive who, like so many before in this story, we never learn the fate of. They simply vanish from their former lives. Like Blunt’s character Kate we are left looking into the faces of Brolin and Del Toro for the details and finding little there to cull from.
Speaking of whom…
Benicio’s Alejandro – AKA The Lawyer – is some of the best work this actor has done and probably will do. This isn’t by chance, actors like Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal have recently discovered Denis Villeneuve as a source of tremendous power to plug themselves into. Run a solid performer through Villeneuve’s filmmaking process and terrific performances are practically guaranteed. One can imagine Quentin Tarantino leaving Sicario mind completely buzzing with potential screenplays and film treatments for yet more tales of Benicio’s Lawyer. He’s that kind of character. There’s a level of artistry to the almost mystic, semi-collected intensity of Alejandro. With so many unknowns in this story he’s the one we’re the most interested in solving, and yet in the terminal gray zone of the world of Sicario, solutions only seem to lead to further, and much more dangerous complications.
The Verdict: Simply put, Sicario is outstanding from any angle you watch it from. This is cinema for those who like it when a movie follows them home and swims around in their heads for a few days after. If Benicio’s Alejandro “The Lawyer” doesn’t achieve some level of cult status in this genre I’d be surprised. I know that, at least for myself, I’m finding it difficult to recall right now just who it was Johnny Depp played in Black Mass last weekend. Someone named Whitey… I think.