Sicario (dir. Denis Villeneuve)

Posted: October 13, 2015 in Uncategorized

“Sicario” is a bleakly cynical and pessimistic film.  Those are not bad qualities for this film to have.  We’re perhaps used to films showcasing the futility of the U.S. drug war, but here we have a film that almost argues that law enforcement and laws in general are futile, that nothing of any greater good can be done, and that the only justice we as humans can make for ourselves is occasional one-on-one personal justice, e.g. revenge.  It’s not an affirming message, but perhaps in our world it is somewhat valid.

The film begins with an FBI tactical team storming a house in Arizona. After arresting one inhabitant and killing another, the team finds that the walls of the home are filled with dead bodies.  Later, some local police trip a bomb in the shed located in the backyard.  This all appears to be the work of a Mexican drug cartel responsible for violence on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border.  The leader of the tactical team is Kate (Emily Blunt), an honest, tough, and resourceful member of the Bureau.  After the raid on the house, she is called into a meeting with higher ups and asked to voluntary for a joint task force aimed at going after the cartels in a manner more effective than cleaning up after bodies.  The offer seems to mostly come from a sandal-wearing Department of Justice advisor named Matt (Josh Brolin), who may or may not be CIA.  Why he wants Kate on the task force is not immediately known.  As audience members, we think this is going to be the clichéd storyline of a special and powerful person who is elevated above their ranks because only THEY can fix what is going on.  “Sicario” is not doing this.  “Sicario” eschews such clichés, and when we finally find out why Kate was chosen, the answer is so realistic and not-clichéd that it is a welcome but devastating gut-punch of pragmatic realism.

It is rather quickly that Kate finds out she’s in for more than she bargained for.  Almost as soon as Kate accepts the assignment, she finds herself on a plane with Matt and a quiet, non-American named Alejandro (Benicio del Toro), who will only say that he used to be a prosecutor in Juarez, Mexico.  Then, despite the FBI having no jurisdiction in the sovereign country of Mexico, Kate finds herself crossing the border on a mission to Mexico to kidnap the brother of the man though to secretly be the second-in-command to the biggest drug cartel operating out of Juarez and supplying cocaine to the United States.  Kate struggles with the legality of this, and further missions, as the film goes along.  Torture, interrogation tactics, rules of evidence, and choosing whether or not to do things in accordance with the rule of law, or to stretch the law to perhaps attain better results become the main focus of the film, which is a slow burning drama that sometimes wants to pretend it is an action movie, but never devolves into such base entertainment.

I am not familiar with any of the other work the writer of this film, Taylor Sheridan, has done. Apparently, he is mainly an actor and this is his first screenwriting credit.  He deserves a lot of credit for writing a film that is unconventional in how it proceeds.  It would have been so much easier to make this a film about a woman in a world of men who is chosen, through her above average skill and knowledge, to take down an evil drug cartel by bending the rules.  That film may even be good, if rather predictable.  That film is not what “Sicario” is.  “Sicario” is a deeper and more intelligent film because the purpose of the film is not to tell the story of a woman in the world of men, or to be about a sinlke drug cartel, or even to be a film like “Traffic” which examines the drug war and trade.  “Sicario” is really about the rule of law, and how the United States breaks the law, without apology, to reach small, pragmatic results that don’t really do much of anything.  This could apply as easily to the war on terror as it does to the war on drugs.  Honestly, if you think about what the film ends up saying, this is one of the most purely anti-American films that have been released in some time.  Kate is our protagonist, but not the film’s focus (in fact, the film often leaves her behind when telling its story), and she seems to be our main character simply because she is one of the only characters in the film that has ethics and a conscience, and we as an audience are meant to feel the same outrage that she does.  At the end of the film, when she has a chance to cross the line into lawlessness for revenge, or maybe just to try to do what she thinks may be just, she does not.  Her moral fiber is not broken, even if that of the United States already is.

The film shows us a corrupt state cop (as opposed to a federal cop) in Mexico (Maximiliano Martinez) almost form the beginning, and later we learn of corrupt cops in the United States, as embodied by the character of Ted (John Bernthal), an Arizona PD officer on the take from the cartels.  “Sicario” seems to be drawing a parallel, making us see that while we Americans think of our country as one of laws and civility, and think of Mexico as a lawless wasteland of corrupt cops and poverty, our countries are more alike than they are dissimilar.  Oddly enough, the Mexican cop is portrayed as mainly a man doing what he has to do for his family, whereas Ted is just a bad person, through and through, though has also brought into the easy money of being on the take from the drug world to support his family.

The only character that seems to be in a position to get what he wants is Alejandro, who is really just looking for revenge.  The United States government is revealed to mainly want to contain a problem because it feels impotent to stop the problem. “Until you convince the 20% of the population who uses their shit to stop, this is the best we can do”, Matt says (or something to that effect, I don’t have the screenplay in front of me).  When we finally find out *spoiler* that the U.S. is only trying to shut down the Mexican cartel so that the Columbian cartel can have a monopoly and inter-cartel violence will be eliminated and stop spilling over into the U.S., we understand the practicality of that, but feel dirty that the United States would essentially reduce itself to being a business partner with druglords.  Then again, the United States’ history with Latin America in the 20th century has more or less been one of hurting the peoples of those countries for its own economic gain. *end spoiler*

 

“Sicario” was directed by Denis Villeneuve, who has previously made two features.  One of them, “Enemy” (2013) I have not seen.  The other, however, was “Prisoners” (2013), a film I liked the visual look of, but hated story-wise for it’s ridiculously pro-Christian and anti-Atheist message.  That was the film where a father whose child disappeared kidnaps and tortures a mentally challenged young man until he finds out that his kid was kidnapped by an atheist woman who kidnaps and kills children in order to cause people to lose faith in god.  O…kay.  I found that film to be offensive for being ostensibly pro-torture and for being a Christian fever dream of the benefits of religion in the fact of evil, child-killing secularists.  “Sicario” features no religious messages that I can divine, so I will assume everything I hated about “Prisoners” came from that film’s writer, and not from Villeneuve.  My guess is the director, based on the two films of his I have seen, is fascinated with how the law is bent to attain some semblance of justice.  Both “Prisoners” and “Sicario” deal with revenge, torture, and law enforcement officials breaking the rules in the course of solving crimes, but they don’t deal with these issues in an easy, “Dirty Harry”-esque way. Whatever issues I have with “Prisoners”, it was, like “Sicario” a slow burn that tried to deal with issues rather than just paste them over for easy crime procedural narratives.  Villeneuve wants to examine these issues and not just use them as window dressing for easy action or mystery plotlines. I admire that, and “Sicario” is a far better film than “Prisoners” because he was finally given a script that lived up to his goals.

If “Sicario” is too oppressively dark and cynical to love, that’s not necessarily a demerit.  Whether it is a useful message to put into the marketplace that we should just throw up our hands and not try to do anything of greater good or significance, I’d probably disagree with.  However, the message the film gives is a valid message to believe, given what we know about the world in general and United States foreign policy in particular, and the film delivers its message is a refreshingly non-hackneyed way. B+.

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