The war on drugs meets the war on terror

October 8, 2015

Sicario is far from your average Hollywood thriller, says Laura Durkay.

DIRECTOR DENIS Villeneuve has a penchant for making movies about people trapped in terrible circumstances.

The main character in his 2010 film Incendies survives massacres, prison and torture during the Lebanese civil war. In Prisoners, a desperate father does very bad things to a mentally disabled man who may or may not have kidnapped his daughter. Villeneuve's films tend to get described with words like "bleak" and "harrowing," but they are always riveting.

In Sicario, Villeneuve teams up with actor-turned-writer Taylor Sheridan and award-winning cinematographer Roger Deakins to turn his attention to the drug war and the U.S.-Mexico border, with results that are just as grim, bloody and compelling as his previous films, and much more nuanced than the film's marketing might lead one to expect.

Sicario follows Kate (Emily Blunt), a steely but by-the-book FBI agent, as she gets assigned to a cartel-hunting inter-agency task force led by two mysterious characters, Alejandro (Benicio del Toro) and Matt (Josh Brolin).

Emily Blunt (right) stars in Sicario
Emily Blunt (right) stars in Sicario

Sicario's promotional materials--and indeed, the opening sequence of the film--set it up as a standard cops-versus-cartels borderland crime thriller. Kate is introduced with textbook action-hero competence during the SWAT raid that begins the film, dodging bullets, shooting disposable bad guys, and grunting "I'm good" to her partner after almost getting shot. She's not immune to fear or trauma, but she's tough, calm under pressure and respected by her colleagues.

But as the film proceeds from one nail-biting set piece to the next, it becomes increasingly clear that it's a story about the merger of the tactics of the "war on terror" with the "war on drugs," and it makes that merger look frankly terrifying.

The film is littered with visuals we associate with the "war on terror": a grisly bomb blast at the climax of a key sequence, bodies hung from a bridge in Juarez that seem intended to remind us of U.S. contractors in Fallujah, and a secret mission to Mexico that's essentially an extraordinary rendition, with all the imagery to match.

Review: Movies

Sicario, directed by Denis Villeneuve, starring Emily Blunt, Benicio del Toro and Josh Brolin.

Matt and Alejandro torture prisoners, watch drug bosses' houses from drones and plan cross-border raids that look like Joint Special Operations Command operations without batting an eye, while Kate grows increasingly uncomfortable with their tactics. But they're not rogue cops doing this under the table--it's clear that the money and resources of the U.S. government have been invested in their anything-goes strategy.

SICARIO USES mystery to brilliant effect to create a sense of dread for the audience that mirrors what Kate is feeling as the mission becomes increasingly violent. For large portions of the film, we, along with Kate, are not entirely certain what's going on. We don't even know what government agency Matt works for (although his silence about it and his close relationship with lots of Seal-Team-Six-looking guys should give us a good hint), and we know even less about Alejandro, until very late in the film.

Once Kate realizes she's been manipulated into being part of an operation far outside the realm of law, ethics or morality, it's too late for her to do anything other than be swept along.

Sicario has already drawn comparisons to Zero Dark Thirty, and there are some striking similarities. Both films feature a tough, competent woman surrounded on all sides by violent men. But Sicario takes the idea that Zero Dark Thirty, Homeland and many a cop show embrace--that participation in state violence is the ticket to gender parity--and twists it into something much cleverer and more disturbing.

In Zero Dark Thirty, the main character Maya discards any sense of moral scruples in the opening moments of the film, when she proves herself ready to participate in a torture-filled interrogation after only the briefest hesitation. And regardless of what you think the film says about torture, in the end, she gets her man.

In Sicario, Kate consistently sticks to her moral compass while her colleagues are off torturing, rendering and assassinating. But it doesn't make her a hero, because the weight of the U.S. state is on the side of those without any moral compass at all.

Sicario could easily have been a story about a law-abiding hero cop who proves to be the lone bulwark against colleagues who want to sacrifice ethics and morality in order to win a battle against villains who will do anything to maintain their power. Or it could have been a story about a good cop becoming compromised by the violence around her--the kind of heart-of-darkness narrative that many stories with violence worker protagonists embrace--in which damage to the hero's soul is seen as an unfortunate but ultimately necessary price to pay in order to defeat a truly evil antagonist.

But neither of these things happens, and the result is that Kate finds herself increasingly trapped and powerless, until her choice is literally collusion or suicide.

AS KATE'S options narrow, the film deliberately erodes our sense of her physical competence. There are two scenes late in the film that end with Kate being physically overpowered and held down by men who are stronger than her. One is an assassin sent by the drug cartel to kill her. The other is Josh Brolin's character Matt.

These scenes are uncomfortable to watch, and intentionally so. Discussing the fight with her potential killer in an interview with the film website Indiewire, Emily Blunt said: "I said to the stunt guy, 'Let's make it messy, it's gotta look real, it's gotta look desperate,' because she isn't actually an action heroine, this character--she's a female cop, and the reality is she would be overpowered by a guy that size. That is the reality. She hasn't got the perfect thing to say, or she can knock out any guy. She's not that girl. It has to be desperate, like she's fighting for her life." And it is.

It's a fine line to walk, setting us up to expect a certain trope of female physical power, and then dismantling that trope in the service of the film's thematic point. It's tricky precisely because this is a trope that's barely established to begin with, but the film manages to pull it off, thanks mostly to Emily Blunt's excellent performance.

(Blunt has been quite open about discussing an anecdote from the film's development, in which a financier offered writer Taylor Sheridan more money if he would rewrite her character as a man. The film would not have been nearly as interesting, and given that it had the highest per-screen gross of 2015 when it opened in limited release on September 18, any budgetary concerns about a female-led cop drama should be considered null and void.)

Sicario has drawn some criticism for some of its representational choices, particularly the depiction of Ciudad Juarez as a lawless hellhole run by cartels. (The mayor of Juarez, in the middle of a tourism-promotion campaign, has threatened to sue the filmmakers.)

It's true that the portrait of Juarez may be more accurate to the city's darkest days five or so years ago than to conditions today. But focusing solely on this criticism misses what the film has to say about "our" side, which is far from pleasant.

Sicario is not a self-consciously radical statement on the drug war, but neither is it in the business of any kind of moral superiority about the U.S. or the militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border.

Throughout the film, the heavily fortified border looms, an imposing visual presence whenever it appears on screen. Two of the film's most tension-filled set pieces involve crossing it: one, a shootout in stalled traffic on the Bridge of the Americas between El Paso and Juarez, and the other, a terrifying night raid through a drug-smuggling tunnel.

The ordinary border-crossing migrants who appear in a single scene of the film are depicted not as threats, but as victims being cycled through a casually soulless deportation system.

And while the cartels are horrifically violent, a choice line from a drug boss late in the film makes it clear that they learned their tactics from much bigger fish in the violence pond.

Sicario plays with hints of CIA-cartel collusion, and it's not a drug lord who has a gun to Kate's head in the final minutes of the film. While never stating its message explicitly, the film makes it perfectly clear with its visual language who the most dangerous of its many gun-toting characters are.

Ultimately, the film does so many interesting things with the standard cop, action and drug war tropes that it's hard to even categorize. Structurally, it's more a tragedy than anything else. It's not "Heart of Darkness meets the drug war," "Zero Dark Thirty meets the drug war" or even "Training Day meets the drug war"--but its own creation that charts a moral landscape that's much bleaker, darker and more interesting than most of what we've come to expect.

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