“Sicario” is a political movie that tries its hardest to remain apolitical. Director Denis Villenueve has said in interviews that he doesn’t believe his movie offers any answers to the questions it raises. Answers are hard to come by on either side of the fence, the border between Mexico and the United States. Names and dates and locations move like smoke, not concrete, unable to be held or fully understood before they disappear. The film ends with no true sense of conclusion. The story we have been following is over, but it is one strand of a larger web, a tangle of knots more intricate and unsolvable than anyone involved has the strength or courage to admit.
I’ve lost count of how many films and television shows have taken on the War on Drugs in recent years. Netflix’s newest show “Narcos” is only the latest example. “Sicario” does not offer new information. It seems to fall short of being any sort of effective statement on its politics, the politics of the situation it’s portraying. But like I said, I don’t think it’s trying to be political. This is adult entertainment of the highest order. Mature, brooding, dark, it pulls no punches. By the end I was watching with a heightened sense of fear. The filmmakers here pull off the kind of tension most horror movies can only dream of. “Sicario” has many horrors of its own. They won’t keep you up at night, but they’ll challenge and possibly enrage you. Better than the rather limp response I have after seeing most “drug movies.”
The approach Villenueve takes here is one of observation rather than intimacy. One of his previous films, “Prisoners,” portrayed its events matter-of-factly despite how emotionally draining an experience it was. By the end of it, I was ready to curl up and take a long nap. I was absolutely exhausted. Similarly, “Sicario” never lets up. It’s always moving, taking us from place to place, back and forth across the border. The characters are constantly smoking and drinking just to stay awake, to make sense of it all. Much of the credit goes to composer Jóhann Jóhannsson and cinematographer Roger Deakins, who craft the tone of the movie through their score and visuals, respectively.
The most significant exchange takes place between Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) and Matt Graver (Josh Brolin). Kate is given the opportunity to join a task force headed by Graver and his CIA buddies, one that she is told will operate out of El Paso, Texas, and focus on the trafficking of drugs over the border. At this point, she’s vulnerable, a bit shaken, having just raided a house and found dozens of corpses stuffed behind walls and in crawl spaces. She asks if they’ll get a chance at the men responsible for the day’s events. Graver responds, “The men who are really responsible for today.” In “Sicario,” there is always someone else, someone bigger and richer and more important and even trickier to track down. These people are never seen or heard. They separate themselves from the legal implications of their actions. They are impossible to touch within the law.
Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) does not prescribe to the law. He is not an employee of any one agency; as he tells Macer upon their first meeting, “I go where I’m sent.” He is more than a man. His actions are as precise and assured as those of a machine, something programmed yet in possession of free will, of rational thought, of choice. Del Toro is mesmerizing in this movie. The role is written in a way that gives him several moments to shine. When making the movie “Traffic,” Del Toro requested that director Steven Soderbergh cut much of his dialogue in order to make the role more physical, something that required acting from the inside out. Del Toro is intense enough an actor to make it work, and in “Sicario,” he makes the smallest gestures seem menacing.
My largest problem with the film is Kate. Emily Blunt gives a fantastic performance, and it’s to her credit that she was able to stand out despite being given limited material. Kate is representative of the audience in that she’s a fish-out-of-water character. She has never stepped foot in Mexico before the events of the movie. She is shocked by the complete disregard for the law, for the humane, by-the-book approach she took working in America. Macer comes off as too naïve. I as an audience member refuse to believe that she was completely unaware of what she was getting into, of how Graver and Alejandro would manipulate the law in such a way as to become something more than a task force, to become a guerilla team working in the shadows. Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan makes a few missteps here, including Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya), Kate’s partner. He is a complete nonfactor and he serves as nothing but a soundboard, a body for Kate to interact with and relate to.
The best stories do not feature heroes or villains. “Sicario” does well not to paint anyone as good or evil, although the audience may draw such conclusions anyway. Interspersed with Macer’s experiences are small kitchen scenes. A young Mexican boy wakes his father, tells him his breakfast is ready. The father pours liquor into his coffee, winking at his son. We later see them playing soccer. A police squad car sits in the driveway. The father is later revealed to be corrupt, a drug mule for the very people Macer and Graver are trying to bring down. His story intersects with that of the CIA at the film’s climax, a raid on a tunnel used to house and smuggle drugs way out in the desert. It’s too easy to point to the officer and label him as one of the “bad guys.” This film has no interest in good and bad. In cases such as this one, there’s no such thing.
“Sicario” ends with a group of kids playing soccer, the field nothing but dirt, clouds of it kicked up and swirling around. Their parents encourage them from the sideline. Gunshots erupt from far away. The children have no choice but to keep playing, and their parents don’t stop them. It’s a reality that won’t soon change. It’s reminiscent of the ending of another drug film, “Traffic,” in which the sport is baseball. In “Traffic,” a similar portrait is painted, though more optimistically. Change is present; at the very least, the promise of it exists. I wouldn’t call “Sicario” pessimistic, but I wouldn’t call it optimistic either. It’s brutally real and honest. It’s exhilarating without being fun, tense without being turgid. 2015 isn’t over, and there are still some movies I’m quite excited about, but as of right now, this if my favorite film of the year.
Written by Lucas Dispoto