This sombre, sinister ballad of an idealistic FBI agent out of her depth may be the most powerful indictment of the War on Drugs since the Wire.
The initial conceit of this blog was to share striking or interesting facts, so here’s one. Since 9/11, the conflict in Afghanistan has transfixed the world’s attention. Yet it seems quite possible that more possible that more people have died in violence linked to Mexican cartels. We often talk about drug dealers engaging in ‘turf wars’ but in Mexico the analogy to an actual war has become horrifyingly literal. The death tolls not only matches a more conventional conflict but so do the arms involved: assault weapons, rocket launchers and high explosives. It is hardly surprising that both the Mexican and American governments have turned to their militaries to counter the threat.
This is the menacing backdrop to Sicario, the new film by director Denis Villeneuve. It follows an FBI agent played (excellently) by Emily Blunt as she gets drawn further into a mysterious and ethically dubious scheme orchestrated by a pair of shady ‘consultants’ played by Benicio Del Torro (also great) and Josh Brolin (the best of that impressive trio).
That synopsis makes it sound like a run of the mill thriller but it’s more sophisticated than that. The film seems to have been partly inspired by Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty and Sicario is clearly reminiscent of her style. Villeneuve shares her flair for cinematography: which shows in everything from the beautiful shots of the arid desert to a pivotal sequence that plays out in infra-red and night vision. And the consistently gritty and realistic tone similar also mirrors Bigelow’s recent work. The action sequences emphasise tension over pyrotechnics. This is especially true of an electrifying sequence in which a convoy of Federal agents take a senior cartel figure from Juarez – until recently the ‘murder capital of the world’ – to the US, all the desperately trying to spot the ambush they know is coming.
But where it really departs from the conventional thriller by opting for a story that is designed to make us uncomfortable. The steps we’d expect to go through on route to our heroine’s eventual triumph are scrambled or missing altogether. Characters refuse to develop into the archetypes we expect and until the end are tough to make ethical judgements about. Villeneuve seems to have consciously crafted this as a film that’s impossible to relax into.
That’s to be commended. There are many aspects of the situation in Mexico that Americans should not be comfortable about – at least not without having considered them first. A real life scandal in which members of the ATF allowed hundreds of guns to fall into the hands of arms dealers, so they could see if they fell into the hands of cartels – they did and were used in numerous killings – indicates that, as the film suggests, some parts of American law enforcement have dubious notions about what is morally acceptable in their fight against the cartels. It’s also unsettling to wonder as Sicario does whether having used assassination, torture and mercenaries to fight terrorism in far away countries, the temptation to use them against an arguably more menacing threat on America’s doorstep might prove overwhelming. Finally, at a point where Donald Trump has re-energised the nativist elements of American politics by railing against the injuries Mexico has apparently done the US, it has to be worthwhile to get Americans to consider the harm they might be doing their neighbour. In particular, isn’t it predictable that when a large rich, country is tough on drugs but lax on guns then heavily armed criminals in the poor nation on its border will be the ones to supply the suppressed demand.
My writing about Sicario that way makes it sound hectoring. Actually, it’s the opposite. It poses questions rather than answering them and does so as part of an engaging story that’s present with some impressive performance and amazing cinematography.
Summary: 8/10 – it’s not an easy film to watch but it’s definitely worth the effort.
Note: I normally include trailers as part of my reviews. In this case, I chose not to because both of the trailers for Sicario were rather spoilery for my taste. Nonetheless, if that doesn’t bother you here’s the best one.