Not far into Denis Villeneuve’s new film Sicario, a military officer asks Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) if she wants to see some “fireworks,” and takes her up on a wall where she can look across the border from El Paso to Juarez and watch the bursting shells of warring cartels and police firing across the skies of Mexico’s border city. As she stares with wide, innocent eyes, I am reminded of the Do Long Bridge scene in Apocalypse Now, when Willard and an LSD-tripping Lance watch shells bursting in the dark, and Willard asks a soldier “Who’s in command here?” and gets the response, “Ain’t you?” The moral ambiguity of that film, in which—as in the story that inspired it, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness—the only way to deal with evil or savagery or lawlessness is to become evil, savage and lawless yourself, is the same ambiguity with which this film deals.
Sicario covers some of the same territory as Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic did fifteen years ago, but demonstrates how much the situation has deteriorated over the years. In Traffic, we at least had an uplifting feeling at the end that Don Cheadle on the American side and Benicio Del Toro on the Mexican side might be scoring small victories in what is most certainly a complex situation. Well, Benicio Del Toro is back in Villeneuve’s film, but playing Alejandro Gillick, a character who, if he ever had any hope, lost it long ago.
The word “Sicario,” we are told in an opening headnote to the film, was a word for a zealot in ancient Israel. The contemporary term refers, though, to a “hitman” in Mexico. It doesn’t take long for us to figure out that it is Alejandro to whom the title refers.
But Kate is the film’s protagonist. She is the leader of an FBI SWAT team operating out of Phoenix. In the movie’s first scene she and her partner Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya) lead a team into a suburban house where they find dozens of bodies stuffed behind dry wall. While they investigate the rest of the premises, two of Kate’s team members are killed when they inadvertently trigger a booby-trap bomb.
Kate is recruited by a cross-agency team led by the shadowy Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), who may be CIA but we never actually know, and Alejandro, who may be a former Mexican prosecutor, or a representative of the Colombian cartel, or something completely different. In any case, the goal of this task force, they tell Kate, is to bring down the kingpin of the Sonora cartel, who they tell Kate is responsible for the corpses she has just found, and the bomb that killed her team members. She is more than willing to join. She believes she will be bringing these drug kingpins to justice. Matt is less interested in Kate’s partner, though, because he learns that Reggie has been to law school, and, he says, he doesn’t want any lawyers along on this mission. We quickly see why—this group engages in activities that are not strictly speaking legal. Let’s just admit it: Everything they do is completely illegal, not to mention unethical and immoral.
But no one will tell Kate any details about what the group is doing, whom they represent, or what their objectives are. Kate is still idealistic enough to believe in the rule of law, and is appalled by the first mission she goes on, which is marred by an extremely tense border crossing in bumper-to-bumper traffic surrounded by cars any of which might be carrying cartel members ready to blow her and everyone else away. Or maybe they are just citizens of Juarez carrying guns for protection against the rampant violence. It seems everyone is armed and no one is innocent.
Brolin as Matt is a loose, sandals-wearing jokester for whom everything seems to be a game and who ultimately you come to realize must be lying because his lips are moving. He does convince Reggie and Kate that their objective is the drug lord himself, but just how true that is and what the details of that mission are Kate will never know. Still trying to follow legal procedure, Kate and Reggie at one point believe they have enough evidence against the cartel’s representative in Arizona that they are ready to arrest him and bring him to trial, but no one wants that: Kate’s FBI boss, played by Victor Garber, points out to her how arrests in her jurisdiction have more than doubled in the last year, but when he asks her what difference it has made on the street, she has to admit it has been none at all. Units like Matt’s and Alejandro’s, apparently, are the new normal.
And why is this? Matt brings the facts home forcefully to Kate when he justifies the existence of his task force: As long as 20 percent of Americans are going to keep providing a market for drugs, the supply is going to be there, and the only thing that can be done is to try to give that supply side—the warring cartels—some sort of order. That seems to be Alejandro’s purpose.
Kate does provide a focal point for the audience. Nearly every scene in the film is through her eyes—sometimes even literally, like the scene filmed through her night goggles in an underground passageway that crosses the border between Mexico and the United States. Like Kate, we begin perhaps idealistically, only to have our clear vision of right and wrong, good guys and bad guys, stripped away layer by layer until we find in the end, as Alejandro says at one point, nothing but packs of wolves on both sides.
There are only three sequences that do not involve Kate’s point of view. They are about Alejandro’s brutality and the selling-out of a Sonoran policeman. They serve, even more than the scenes Kate witnesses, to underscore the moral ambiguity of what might be jokingly referred to as “law enforcement,” but what is in fact just another wolf pack. Perhaps that is what really lies behind Matt’s sometimes disturbingly ironic view of the game: He sees the absurdity of it all.
As does the audience—along, finally, with Kate—by the end of the film. Somewhat like Soderbergh’s Traffic, this film doesn’t really provide any answers, but tries to present a starkly realistic picture of the current situation. In doing so, it forces the viewer to ask hard questions. We don’t know what kinds of questions Kate will be asking herself, but one that comes to mind is the obvious: If you become as bad as what you are trying to fight, then what have you gained? Another might be this: If control is the only thing that can be hoped for, why doesn’t the United States legalize narcotics and control them, and cut out the cartels and the attendant violence they bring with them?
This is a thoughtful movie that definitely deserves its R rating (I would pay attention to that if I were you). But it is definitely one of the best movies to come out this year, though its complexity and non-Hollywood, non-audience-pleasing ending may cut down on its box-office gross. I’m going to give it four Shakespeares.