Published on October 12th, 2015 | by Michael0
Sicario – Review
Sicario is a word probably unfamiliar to British audiences. The film gives us a definition in its opening moment ‘In Mexico, Sicario means ‘Hitman’’. The true significance of the word (never spoken aloud) only becomes apparent towards the end of Denis Villeneuve’s brilliant thriller. In fact, a lot about Sicario only becomes clear towards the end, not because it has a labyrinthine plot, but because it is only then that the protagonist, Kate (Emily Blunt) realises her role is the US’s ongoing drug war.
Initially, Agent Kate Macer seems in total control. She is the head of the FBI’s kidnap response unit, a field agent who in the words of a superior has ‘been kicking down doors her whole career’. But an operation in Phoenix, Arizona goes bad – first with the discovery of over forty corpses in the wall, then with the detonation of a bomb which claims the lives of two Police Officers. No blame is attached to Kate, but she sorely wants a crack at the man ‘really responsible’ for the horrible crime. This chance comes in the form of Department of Defence consultant Matt (Josh Brolin) who is putting together an inter-agency task force aimed at a Mexican cartel with the aid of the shadowy Alejandro (Benecio Del Toro). And so Kate embarks of a mission, she thinks to El Paso, actually across the border in Juarez. As an FBI agent, she has no jurisdiction there. If, as she suspects, Matt is actually CIA, then he cannot operate in the US. Either way, the operation is probably illegal.
Emily Blunt has been so good for so long now that’s not a surprise at all to see her carry off the tough but conflicted Kate to a tee. In some ways, the film’s casting of the lead seems ‘gender-blind’ – a male character could have replaced Kate with few changes to the script – and indeed the studio did push for a male lead, which Villeneuve and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan wisely resisted. What is more surprising, and quite bold given the relative lack of proper female heroes in thrillers and action films, is that Kate is made increasingly peripheral in her own story. This is of course deliberate, a canny way for the filmmakers to show just quite how murky and ambiguous the war on drugs is. There are no white knights, no brave heroes making the land safe for innocents, just shady deals, dark acts and relentless violence.
The film is indebted to Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, borrowing many of the trappings of that film – the strong female lead, a dark and dirty war (with drugs substituting seamlessly for terrorism), the night vision raids, the uneasy mix of politics and covert operations. In a lot of ways though it surpasses Zero Dark Thirty which infamously copped out of any sort of statement regarding the torture of prisoners. Sicario itself doesn’t preach any particular point of view but it lays everything out there, showing us that this is the reality of the war on drugs, this is what happens daily and there’s no sense pretending otherwise. It comes as as much of a shock to Kate as it does to us.
Matt and his comrades use double talk and ambiguity to mask their true intentions. He speaks of ‘causing chaos, shaking the tree and seeing what comes loose’ but then of deals with the devil in order to achieve a measure of order. Alejandro talks of the removal of a particularly violent Cartel head as akin to ‘finding a vaccine’ in terms of the number of lives saved but every action leads to more bloodshed. It’s Kate’s partner, played by Daniel Kaluuya (a long way from the likes of Posh Kenneth and Tealeaf) who figures out why Kate was brought into the task force at all – as at best a distraction, at worst merely legal justification for Matt’s operations. The whole thing reminds me of a classic of another war, John Le Carre’s The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. In the film version said spy is played by Richard Burton and is a desperate, broken, seedy little man. The audience expect that his scheme must be some grand design to preserve the free world, instead it is a nasty, cynical deal, using up and expending innocents so that one communist can be ousted and another preserved, maintaining the status quo at the cost of a couple of lives. Sicario is like that, a thrilling, chilling lesson on realpolitik. It speaks volumes, I think, that these films can substitute the Cold War for the war on terror for the war on drugs. War. War never changes, as the man said.
Sicario is also a curious sort of action film, one that cranks up the tension and horror of a situation. Far from the gung-ho action Hollywood has given us down the years, here we have a film that makes us fear bursts of action like we would a jump scare in a Slasher film, the audience ends up praying an operation goes off without a hitch so we don’t see another person gunned down or blown to bits. A huge part of this is down to the droning electronic score by Icelandic composer Johan Johansson, some of the best musical work in a film I’ve heard in a long while. The only person seemingly at home in all of this chaos is Alejandro, methodically going about his business with a steely determination. Benecio Del Toro puts in some of his best work here, working well with very little. In Sheridan’s original script, Alejandro’s whole backstory was laid out in dialogue, Villeneuve cut most of it to preserve his mystery and it works a treat. No-one can portray that mixture of grizzled, menacing and enigmatic quite like Del Toro.
For his previous film, Prisoners, Villeneuve looked at US law enforcement, its limitations when confronted with a horrible crime (in this case the abduction of two little girls) and what happens when people step outside of it. Here, he’s played a similar trick, taking the same theme and expanding it to show how America deals with the drugs flooding in over the Mexican border. He shows us what a pointless, self-perpetuating nonsense it is, full of violence and compromise. How a very capable woman enters it with honest intentions and is chewed up and spit back out again. How the progress can only be achieved by removing bad men and hoping the ones that take their place are marginally better. As Matt tells Kate, ‘Until someone finds a way to stop 20 percent of America putting this shit up their nose, order is the best we can hope for.’