I once went to Juarez in Mexico. I was hitch-hiking across the USA at the time and got as far as El Paso, just 11 miles away but across the border. The guy I was travelling with suggested we nip over the border just to say we’d been. The border was no problem so over we went and had lunch on the outskirts of the city. At no point did I feel in danger and no guns were in evidence, apart from the border posts; in fact it was a pleasant little jaunt.
If on the other hand you went by the evidence presented in Sicario, you might easily think that citizens and officials of both US and Mexico were engaged in a mad spree of gunning one another down to the last man standing.
Not surprising the Mexicans were up in arms (metaphorically) about this portrayal of their city, in the heat of the 2010. But then Sicario is not the first time the subject of Mexican drug cartels has been dealt with on the big screen (see here for a list.) Add to that TV series like Breaking Bad, and on Escobar and the Medellín cartel the recent series Narcos. However it is portrayed, there is no question that the battle between mega-wealthy drug traffickers and law enforcement cost many lives on both sides, especially innocent lives.
There is a moral conscience though: an FBI officer forced to work for others (she isn’t sure whom) on a mission whose objectives are shrouded in fog, ultimately to take down the hierarchy of a Mexican drug cartel. She is Emily Blunt‘s naive but principled enforcer Kate Macer, chosen for the mission for reasons she can’t quite fathom above her close colleague Reggie (the excellent Daniel Kaluuya.)
That these two outsiders are both played by very fine British actors may not be entirely coincidental, but there is most certainly a culture clash between these ethical operators and the wild excesses of a team of hitmen sponsored, it later transpires, by the CIA for its own purposes. They include Benecio del Toro‘s assassin Alejandro Gillick and Josh Brolin‘s amused thug Matt Grover.
Of the many things you can say about Sicario, there is very much worthy of admiration, providing you can deal with the grim and uncompromisingly brutal scenario, unremitting from start to finish; this is the movie for which the word “gritty” should have been invented.
Taylor Sheridan‘s script is among the finest I’ve encountered in recent years, peeling back layers of understanding like the dance of the seven veils; Denis Villeneuve has taken that script and done a truly outstanding job of creating a pulsating narrative, with especially strong emphasis on the close-up work that so often goes awry in action movies. Roger Deakins‘s cinematography is truly sublime, fully deserving of the Oscar for which it was nominated but failed to win; I particularly liked the silhouetted team with night vision goggles heading down the tunnel at dusk.
Worthy of note is Jóhann Jóhannsson‘s subtly edgy score, also nominated, that sets the nerves jangling; also indeed the soundscape of the movie is gloriously conceived to enhance the spare tension on the screen, much as Hitchcock mastered to such brilliant effect in Psycho.
All these ingredients and more are worthy of acclaim, but the pacing set by Villeneuve is what makes the whole scenario tick, gradually ratcheting up the tension to fever pitch without ever forgetting the Machiavellian conundrum on which it is founded (of which more below), is what makes this such an intensely watchable movie that grabs you by the throat and never lets go.
Each set piece is pulled off with vim and vigour, and there are several of them, starting with the FBI discovery of bodies stashed in the wall at a house ultimately owned by Manuel Diaz, a leading lieutenant of the Sonora cartel, and the booby trapped explosion that follows.
Then there is the tension of the traffic queue, where the team in their convoy of black SUVs transporting a Diaz operator called Guillermo back over the border know that assassins will attempt to hijack the convoy and kill Guillermo, so scan cars in the queue to pick out the gunmen. We feel Macer’s terror but on this occasion her CIA masters pick out the villains, shoot them dead and drive off, presumably leaving the border guards to sort out the mess. Doubtless they will file a report later and get off scot free. Like James Bond, they are licensed to kill.
But for all the action, the real question the viewer should be asking is this: Who are the Sicarios of the title? The answer on this occasion is mostly the American law enforcers rather than paid hitmen run by the drug barons. The moral dilemma at the heart of Sicario is this: whatever the good intentions of stopping drugs trafficking, it is impossible to tell from their actions who are the good guys and who the bad.
The CIA men are, if anything, more vicious and bloodthirsty than the men they are chasing. This is brought home in two scenes in the movie: del Toro’s character ends up gunning down not only the overlord of the drug cartel, Fausto Alarcón (Julio Cedillo), but also his wife and children while they are eating.
Later, the same character forces Macer to sign a disclaimer, essentially saying that the CIA did the operation by the book. She demurs but is forced at gunpoint. The CIA would not be above killing an FBI agent if it was in their best interests, the film suggests; few would argue that that situation was not plausible, and doubtless the overseers of Congress believe the end justifies the means. As the definition of Machiavellianism is usually stated: “the employment of cunning and duplicity in statecraft or in general conduct.”
“The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”