Genre: Action, Crime, Drama
Directed by: Denis Villeneuve
Starring: Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, Benicio Del Toro, Victor Garber
When discussing, in an extensive essay, the harsh realities of Mexico’s ongoing war against global drug production, author and journalist John Gibler called it a conflict “too complex to be understood in any single us-and-them story”. In Gibler’s eyes, the causes and consequences of Mexico’s multibillion-dollar drug-trafficking business goes further than the cops-and-robbers allegory that’s rife within the dictum of both government and the media. “The myth of evil”, he says, of “warring cartels facing a valiant government fighting against them is useless”.
Yet it is precisely in these broad strokes of good vs. bad that we naively consume the facts of this conflict. To us it is a battle between those who produce and sell the drugs, and those who try to prevent them from doing so. In the rhetoric of the western media, the borders are in no way blurred; they are as clearly outlined as the one that separates Mexico from America.
It is this same idealistic ideology that Emily Blunt’s Kate Macer, the FBI agent at the centre of Denis Villeneuve’s challenging and complex crime drama Sicario, shares. She is a diligent and determined enforcer, someone who believes in the rule of law and that doing things by the book will always deliver results.
When we meet Kate, she’s leading the charge in a smash and grab raid on a house in Arizona that belongs to Manuel Diaz (Bernardo P. Saracino), a suspected jefe in the Mexican Cartel. They expect to find drugs, of course, but more surprising are the dozens of corpses sealed within the walls. Keen to bring those responsible to justice, Kate agrees to assist DoD agents Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro), who are in the process of putting together an elite team set-up specifically to fight back against Cartel activity.Throwing his heroine into a hostile milieu that’s morally and ethically complex, Villeneuve shows himself to be wholly involved in the intricacies of his chosen subject. Aided by Taylor Sheridan’s superbly structured screenplay, the director makes no mistakes in mincing his intentions. As if he’s grabbed you forcefully by the scruff of the neck, Villeneuve plunges his audience, along with Macer, into a murky and unpredictable world where there are no rules and, more startlingly, no easy answers. Just as Gibler observed the war on drugs to be in his essay, so too is Sicario more than just a simple story of right and wrong.
The strike team’s plan appears to be a simple one. By rattling Diaz’s cage, they hope to eventually force him back across the border into Mexico to rendezvous with his boss Fausto Alarcon (Julio Cedillo). Then they take them both out, covertly and cleanly. In Matt and Alejandro’s world, lawful procedure and red tape are nothing more than trappings that stop them from doing their job. This isn’t an environment where the threats of legal ramifications are enough to deter those resolute on running drugs across the border. Here, we are told, it is through controlling the chaos, not curbing it, that some semblance of order will be restored.
For us and for Kate, this twisted philosophy is a medicine that’s almost impossible to swallow, and that’s the principle point. Similarly to Matthew Heineman’s recent drug war documentary Cartel Land, Sicario isn’t interested in offering its audience any answers, its aim is to encourage you to ask and then chew over the complicated questions. This is a seething, surgical think piece in the guise of a pressurised police procedural that’s evocative of Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty; it’s fiercely intelligent and suffused with a thematic fog that’s formidably opaque.
Sicario (the Mexican for hitman, in case you’re wondering) is also a raw and unrelenting thriller, with cojones the size of cue balls. Villeneuve’s direction is potent and pummeling; the violence is unflinching, the tension pushed to levels that are almost unbearable at times. A scene in which Kate and Alejandro become trapped in traffic at the U.S. border control, having recently travelled to Juarez, only to find themselves potentially surrounded by cars carrying hostile Cartel soldiers is one of, if not the most intense single action sequence to grace our screens this year.The atmosphere is one of constant, imposing threat. The use of dusty brown landscapes and sandy shaded colours, captured crisply by cinematographer Roger Deakins and pervaded with the piercing ferocity of Jóhann Jóhannsson’s expertly ear-splitting score, pile on the peril to the point at which it’s almost suffocating.
Adding further layers are a set of excellent central performances. Josh Brolin and Benicio del Toro both bring a magnetic energy – the former adding gratefully received lines of humour, the latter generating greater quantities of enigmatic depth. But this film ultimately belongs to Emily Blunt, who once more proves herself to a performer of phenomenal versatility. Kate is a strong woman who has made it in a man’s world, but that’s not why she’s fascinating; it’s not her gender that allows us to invest in her, it’s the fact that we know her to be on the side of what is right. Blunt, acting as our eyes into this world of death and disorder, channels our terror and trepidation, and effortlessly carries our sympathy from the start.
If there is a misjudgement, it’s the inclusion of a subplot focused on one of Diaz’s mules, a police officer named Silvio (Maximiliano Hernández), a narrative through line that fails to connect until it’s almost too late. But it does help to offer us a starkly honest reminder that this is a conflict that’s far from over. What concerns you, however, is that it’s one you still fail to fully grasp.