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Film Review: Sicario

Sicario (2015; Directed by Denis Villeneuve)

Before it climactically but quietly unveils its limited core critique of the drug war like a slow-handed, old-fashioned magician who’s still got the touch, Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario sears its morally-ambiguous portrait of American government agents targetting the brutal Mexican drug-dealing cartels for incisive (and not entirely legal) reprisals into viewers’ visual cortex with a litany of indelible images. Villeneuve and his master cinematographer Roger Deakins (the duo collaborated on last year’s Blade Runner 2049, one of the most consistently beautiful films of the 21st Century) show us an armored police vehicle on a raid backing through the living room wall of a dealer’s house while a cartel henchman watches TV, then the same house’s walls opened up to reveal dozens of plastic-wrapped corpses. Crowds of migrants are seated on the pavement under the fluorescent glare of a bus station; U.S. law enforcement agents stand on a rooftop near the Mexican border as the sun sets ravishingly, watching the nightly inter-cartel “fireworks” of gunfire and explosions burst out on the southern side; the black silhouettes of an armed and armored Special Forces strike team stalks in front of a painted dusk-hour horizon.

There are deeper and harder questions lying behind this aestheticization of the front lines on the war on drugs, as there are in Sicario‘s ripely imagined premise in general. But we ought to reserve some initial praise for those very fine aesthetics before pulling down this silky curtain to consider what harsh things we find there. Villeneuve’s prodigious skill at orchestrating extended, absorbing sequences and Deakins’ next-level camera work come together in a scene of crescendoing tension, as our core trio of characters – FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), information-withholding Department of Justice task force leader Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), and the mysterious, sinister Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro) – ride with a highly-armed joint U.S. government/Mexican Federal Police convoy moving a high-value cartel-connected asset across the border from Ciudad Juarez to Texas. Vehicles screech through Juarez’s winding streets, past the hanging, mutilated corpses of the hot war between Mexican police and the cartels, before a traffic jam just past the border crossing erupts into a shocking bloodbath of a shootout. It’s bravado stuff, and Sicario is never better, which is not entirely a good thing as there remains a good hour in the movie once the dust settles from this incident.

Kate is offered a spot on Graver’s task force, and accepts it out of duty-bound righteousness, as well as a desire to accomplish more than the usual low-level busts of her unit’s purview, despite misgivings from her partner Reggie Wayne (Daniel Kaluuya of Get Out) about the shady extra-legal deep-state vibe of the enterprise (which turn out to be rather prescient). Without getting too deeply into the plot weeds of the mission, Graver – and especially the increasingly ruthless Alejandro, who has a personal score to settle – are pulling at cartel-woven threads and hoping one leads them to a major honcho named Fausto Alarcón (Julio Cesar Cedillo). There are more firefights with cartel triggermen along the way, along with kidnappings at gunpoint and a largely-implied prisoner interrogation utilizing torture.

In other words, in most ways, Sicario is pretty standard, vaguely-politically-charged, drug-war action-thriller genre material, despite its occasional elevation by Villeneuve and Deakins and their evolved visual sense. What this largely means is that it depicts, and at least partially valourizes, agents of American power utilizing pitilessly violent zero-tolerance tactics against squads of tattooed, menacing Mexican vatos, regardless of the rule of law or the integrity of international borders or any species of moral code. Sicario is Zero Dark Thirty for the border narcotics conflict, complete with nighttime military-equipped assassination missions and dangerous intimations of the strategic value of intelligence gained through the torture of enemy combatants. Like that similar film, the impressive hypercompetence of the filmmaking serves to obscure the cynical, fearful authoritarianism at the film’s heart, lurking in masquerade as a bloody-minded tone of clear-cut pragmatic realism. A hard approach to deal with hard men, democracy and law be damned.

The opening sequence, with Kate’s team uncovering a house literally insulated by the bodies of cartel victims that is fruther guarded with deadly, cop-slaying booby traps, stacks the deck irrevocably. When wrestling with monsters, one must needs be monstrous. Even Kate, principles aside, recognizes the limits of her by-the-book approach and finds herself going along with the extralegal operation, seemingly to see how far it can go, how much burning the rule book can ultimately accomplish. But Sicario possesses the tunnel vision of the trenches, and cannot see far beyond the barrel of a gun to the wider causes and consequences of the drug war.

The script is by Taylor Sheridan, who also penned the far-superior Hell or High Water, which invokes genre conventions and a far cleverer premise to deliver a deeper and more potent critique of the widespread damages touched off by American capitalism. Sicario does hold a deep-cut twist at its core: Alejandro, who in del Toro’s seasoned and forever-unpredictable hands emerges as the film’s defining problematic badass antihero, is not only settling a grudge but acting as the agent of a rival criminal empire’s power grab. A sequel, out this summer from a script by Sheridan but without the direct involvement of Villeneuve or Deakins, will focus on Alejandro, exactly the sort of figure of gangland funhouse-mirror romance whose acts of cool-headed vengeful violence excite throngs of aggro young men to wish-fulfillment adulation (and holy hell, does its premise sound deeply politically problematic, if not outright terrible).

To given Sheridan a bit of credit, he does intend to question the premises of the drug war more than glorify the deadly ballet of amoral shadow men, and it’s hard to say that Villeneuve and Deakins, for all of their technical prowess and superb aesthetic summoning, glorify it either. Sicario does have a certain point to make about the capitalist superstructure standing behind (and choosing sides in) the drug war, but it tends to lose that point in the masculinized reification of tactical aggression that is (usually) sadly unavoidable in its genre of choice. Sheridan and Villeneuve alike (the former with Hell or High Water, the latter with Arrival) moved on from Sicario to more deconstructive takes on the masculine imperatives of law enforcement and the military. Let’s take Sicario‘s stronger elements as stepping stones to better visions, and hope to leave its more reactionary features out in the inhospitable desert to waste away.

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