Director: Denis Villeneuve
Cast: Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin, Daniel Kaluuya, Jeffrey Donovan, Jon Bernthal, Victor Garber, Maximiliano Hernádez, Raoul Trujillo, Bernardo P. Saracino,
MPAA Rating: (for strong violence, grisly images, and language)
Running Time: 2:01
Release Date: 9/18/15 (limited); 9/25/15 (wider); 10/2/15 (wide)
Review by Mark Dujsik | September 24, 2015
Everyone in Sicario is a pawn of someone or something else. The game is the drug trade through the Americas, primarily the southern border of the United States, Mexico, and, to a certain degree, Colombia. It might sound flippant to describe this as a game, but that is the way the film sees it. It's not flippant about the subject, either. This is a nasty game of brutal murder, extrajudicial arrests, and the outright flouting of laws by the people who purport to be working on the side of that law. The film is cynical to such an extent that it seems to grow tired of cynicism. By the end, it has become apathetic about these matters.
No one can stop this mess, and it's folly to try, because every player is merely a pawn. Some of them are just in a better position at any given moment, giving them the appearance of strategic importance. It's an illusion, though. The game continues onward no matter how many pawns are removed from the board.
It's telling that the characters within Taylor Sheridan's screenplay rarely refer to drugs. In theory, that should often be a subject of conversation among these folks, given that they are, after all, fighting the War on Drugs. Save for a few shots near the end of the film, we never really see any illegal narcotics, and only one character suggests that stopping drugs is the motivation for what's happening throughout the film. He says it once, and that also comes near the end of the film.
There have been plenty of opportunities for this or, for that matter, any character to bring up the topic as a moral or legal justification for these actions. No one does until that particular moment, and it's a moment that we can read as either genuine or a lie—the words of a true believer or of a hypocrite. After all we've seen, the latter options are more likely to be the truth.
That's how cynical the film is. Sheridan suggests that the object of this game is not to stop the drug trade but to perpetuate the game itself. There are systems in place that need to be fed. Any end to the War on Drugs would mean the end of these systems, and the people overseeing and within them are either unwilling or unable to bring about that end. Either option is frightening.
The film opens with a raid in a small neighborhood in Arizona, as Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), an FBI agent, and her partner Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya) lead a team of agents and local SWAT officers into a home. They're expecting to find and free hostages but instead come across a horror show of dozens of dead bodies hidden behind drywall. While investigating the scene, an explosion kills two police officers.
In the aftermath, Kate's boss (Victor Garber) meets with Matt (Josh Brolin), who claims to be an advisor to the Department of Defense. Matt offers Kate an opportunity to join his team, promising that it will give her the chance to find the people responsible for what happened in that house. Soon enough, she's in a room with military personnel, with Matt going over the details of a mission in Juarez City to apprehend the brother of a ruthless drug cartel leader. The operation is clearly illegal, especially since Matt isn't with the organization he says he is. Kate can only point that fact out to people who don't care.
The other major player here is Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), a former prosecutor from Colombia who also holds the title of "DOD advisor." He has firsthand knowledge of what this cartel leader is willing to do to maintain power, so he has come to the U.S. to stop him. We see what the cartel boss does when the team arrives in Juarez as they drive past decapitated and dismembered corpses hanging from the underside of a bridge. Steve (Jeffrey Donovan), another team member (who knows the right time to walk out of a room so that he can have plausible deniability of what's to follow), observes that it's a "brilliant" movie in that it strikes fear and that the punishment is so brutal that it gives the impression the victims "deserved" it.
This is a procedural through and through, with the team following each piece of evidence to the next. The house in the beginning leads to the brother, who leads to a scattershot interrogation of undocumented immigrants waiting for buses to deport them, which leads to an underground tunnel from Arizona into Mexico. The key is how these particular characters, as representatives of some shadowy plan either approved or unchecked by the government, plan these actions and react when faced with the next step—what laws they're willing to break and how far they're willing to go in order to stop a monstrous foe. What waits at the end of the tunnel ties into a subplot involving a Mexican police officer and his young son, but it goes much further into the dark heart of this battle.
Kate serves as the film's conscience, although even she goes along to get along, learning that there are some lines of personal ethics that she is willing to cross. Blunt is exceptional here in portraying that constant check of Kate's moral code, whether she's reflecting after a violent day or caught up in the heat of a firefight.
Director Denis Villeneuve stages and shoots those latter sequences with a clear comprehension of the environment (especially during an ambush in traffic waiting at the border), no shortage of building tension (Jóhann Jóhannsson's thumping score is highly influential in this regard), and an understanding of the suddenness with which violence arrives and is dispatched. All the while, he maintains a subjective point-of-view that keeps us with Kate, who is often behind and in the dark (literally, during the tunnel raid, which cinematographer Roger Deakins captures through night-vision and infrared scopes).
The characters who are deep into this system have their own code, too. It's just much looser than Kate's. It's born out of necessity. Sheridan doesn't challenge it. He simply lets their game play out to its violent and tragic end. The tragic side of Sicario, though, is that it is not really an end. The only possible outcome of this game of pawns, the film contends, is a stalemate. Even that is only momentary.
Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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