“Sicario” is a Tense and Grim Look at the Futility of the Drug War

Last week on Plot and Theme we had an entire week devoted to the feature films of Denis Villeneuve, and now we get a nice cherry on top: Sicario. Villeneuve’s seventh feature film stars Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, and Benicio del Toro, and tells the story of a FBI SWAT agent Kate Macer (Blunt) who is whisked away on a special task force dedicated to hunting down the head of a Mexican drug cartel. The film is comfortable exploring gray areas and dwelling in the nooks and crannies of the legal justice system, but ultimately cannot find any effective answers.

Sicario opens more violently and briskly than any of Villeneuve’s previous film with a SWAT raid on a suspected drug house in the suburbs of Phoenix. The team fails to find drugs in the house, but a stray bullet reveals a much more grisly quarry: victims of the cartel rotting behind the drywall, numbering in the dozens. This quiet suburban home is a mausoleum, and the law enforcement officers struggle to comprehend.

Back at the station, Macer meets Matt Graver (Brolin), a Department of Defense liaison who offers her the chance to accompany him on an operation to neutralize the head of the cartel responsible, Manuel Diaz. She agrees, and on a flight to El Paso meets Matt’s partner Alejandro Gillick (del Toro), who is Columbian and fairly cloak-and-dagger in his mannerisms. En route, Kate learns that their mission is to go into Juarez to extract one of Diaz’s top men from a Mexican prison.

This particular sequence, where the team crosses into Mexico and then must return back to America is a masterful piece of tension-driven film-making. Villeneuve uses Kate as the proxy for the audience, and we relate to her astonishment at the things that she sees on the other side of the border, and feel her tension mount as more-experienced members of the team call out warnings and identify potential dangers. Even more than the opening sequence to the film, this portion serves as a ruthless eye-opening for the audience stating, “This is how things are; now act accordingly”. Kate struggles to accept that the actions of her team are warranted, and bristles at Graver’s insistence that there isn’t any other way.

Villeneuve also continues his brilliance with harsh subject matters. Most visibly in Sicario is how he handles the subject of torture. As in Incendies and even Maelstrom, Villeneuve only hints at what is happening through subtle camerawork and crucial prop choices, but the horror of the situation is palpable. By contrast, think of the torture sequences in Zero Dark Thirty, which are much more blunt and place it all on the screen for us to experience viscerally. This is not to say that Villeneuve has made a better choice than Katherine Bigelow – but it is important to think about what each director is trying to convey through their choices. As before, it seems that Villeneuve’s more subtle style encourages the viewer to complete the story in his or her imagination, mimicking Kate’s paucity of knowledge. By contrast, Bigelow really wants to assault you with the brutality to force you to confront your feelings on torture in general. Both are great, they just want different effects.

Unlike many of Villeneuve’s other pieces which champion the power of love and kindness over abject evil and hatred, Sicario is not a kind film. Instead of offering some panacea to solve the problem with the drug trade, it lingers on the issues and displays the flavor of our most common response: militant law enforcement. It keeps much from the audience (and Kate, again) even up to the third act, and is content to let the audience ask the questions as they emerge. It never answers them the way we’d like. In fact, the closest thing to an answer from Villeneuve is one of the futility of our current approach.

Finally, interspersed throughout the doings of Graver and his team are scenes of a Mexican state police officer going about his day. He eats breakfast with his family, plays soccer with his son, and dutifully heads to work. It is unclear to the audience exactly what these sequences mean, but they are eventually paid off beautifully, and may be the most poignant and direct statement of Villeneuve’s theme with Sicario: that the drug war not only rewards despicable behavior, but our greatest efforts to fight it are ultimately worthless.

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