Denis Villeneueve is an exciting talent in film right now, a director who wrings out brilliant work from actors and cinematographers to make cinema that is visceral, darkly beautiful, and intellectually engaging. In fact, much of Chris’s review of Prisoners—Villeneueve’s 2013 piece on the malleability of morality—applies to his most recent film, Sicario. While the scope is substantially grander, focusing on the war between U.S. agencies and Mexican drug cartels. the technical proficiency remains. The acting never falls short. Roger Deakins’ cinematography can capture massive, barren deserts and tense close-ups in the same minute. Releases from the tension are scarce. If you want a taut, dramatic, and frenetic film driven by the characters, then Sicario will intoxicate you with its strengths.
However, while those qualities are all great for a reviewer’s checklist, the context of their usage in Sicario recasts them in a troubling light. While Traffic (2000) seems like the obvious point of comparison, the troubling mix of fantastic film-making and disturbing subtext builds bridges more closely in the direction of Zero Dark Thirty, which had its own hidden political agenda. Sicario is to the cartels what Zero Dark Thirty is to the War on Terror, and as a result the subtle use of writing, cinematography, and editing become a vehicle for troubling ideas that get quietly passed on to the audience.
Most useful in deconstructing some of the politics of the film is Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), the FBI agent-turned-cartel-hunter-tag-along who acts as the audience conduit, attempting to understand Alejandro (Benicio del Toro) and Matt’s (Josh Brolin) intentions. For most of the movie, we don’t even know what department they work for. Kate is simply told to shut up and listen, trusting that their understanding of the situation appears incomprehensible but is actually necessary. They break the rules. They ignore boundaries. Kate’s boss informs her, though, that their power comes from on high. He says the boundaries have moved, but more accurately they’ve been erased. When you’re facing a big evil like the cartel, you need guys who fudge the rules and get down into the nitty-gritty to keep us Americans safe.
Already, though, we’re running into several problems. First of all, make no mistake: this movie is about how evil those darn folks down in Mexico are. They’re corrupt. They even corrupt some good ol’ Americans. They’re powerful—more so than we can comprehend—and violent. The characters support this dichotomy, and while the film does throw in a Mexican kid (whose dad is a corrupt cop, obviously) and a cartel chief saying that the Americans ain’t much better, it feels like an attempt by the screenwriter Taylor Sheridan to cover his ass. If he really believed the Americans were perhaps just as “bad,” then he wouldn’t implicitly support the illegal actions of Matt and Alejandro. When Matt and Alejandro see two cars full of younger Mexican men with tattoos, they know those are the bad guys. Lo and behold, all the guys in those cars are carrying guns. Alejandro and Matt are never wrong in their overzealous actions and assumptions. Their power is never challenged. Whether that power makes them “good” or not is irrelevant; their tactics are shown to get results, and that underlying assumption supports overreaching groups of power and throws in a “Maybe they’re kinda bad too?” to pretend that it’s balanced and thoughtful. If you make a movie about the death penalty and posit that it may or may not be wrong to murder criminals, but show that every single person on death row is 100% guilty, then it doesn’t matter if you’re maybe questioning the death penalty. You’re still misrepresenting the situation and implicitly supporting it as an action that works.
Further, while Matt and Alejandro’s actions are troubling, they’re often written, shot, and acted in such a way that the problematic elements melt away. I saw this in a reasonably well-populated theater, and I was struck by how often people were laughing. There were chuckles at Alejandro and Matt’s actions while torturing people. I bet if you asked those people if they thought torture was wrong, a lot of them would respond with an unequivocal “yes.” But because the victims of the torture are clearly the bad guys, such despicable human beings—and Alejandro and Matt are just so suave and charming—they were totally fine with it. It was funny. Those guys deserved it. It’s this kind of powerful film-making that disturbs me. First of all, torture doesn’t really work; second of all, the presentation of the act subtly supports its usage. If you show violence working again and again, then you don’t get to say your film is anti-violence just because someone says, “Violence doesn’t solve anything!” at the end. There’s an old adage about actions and words that applies here.
It’s these kinds of details that provide a message more powerful (and dangerous) than any treatise on the benefits of torture and omnipotent government agencies. It’s Matt saying that the cartel’s violence will continue as long as 20% of the populace continues to snort coke and smoke weed. Is there the consideration of the fact that coke and weed are pretty different, or that it’s the illegality of the drugs that give the cartels a reason to exist, or that it’s not drug users faults that cartels are cutting off people’s heads? No. And you can argue that all of this is “just what the characters would do and say,” but anyone who knows how writing and editing work knows that what you choose to portray—and how you choose to portray it—are everything. And this movie portrays way too many things in a way that subconsciously supports a troubling narrative in support of those in power. “When you have people as evil as those in the cartels,” Sicario posits, “you need these guys to save us.”
Kate Macer does help curtail this slightly, in that she’s clearly as troubled by it as we are. Yet, ultimately, she defers to these powers. She has to accept them, because she’s powerless to stop it and she perhaps buys that we need folks like that to get things done. But does anything really get done? SPOILERS The strong implication is that Alejandro, who works for a Colombian cartel, is killing the head of a Mexican cartel so that power can be consolidated to one group, which the U.S. can more easily control than the numerous cartels. But we don’t see any consideration of whether this improves things, whether this option is better—not to mention the fact that he’s just replacing a single cartel with another single cartel. Kate simply accepts that she can’t do anything about it. When she questions their motives, her boss asks if she thinks their by-the-books methods are really improving things. “Do you feel like we’re winning?” he asks. “No,” she says. Because you don’t win by-the-book. You win by the CIA using and abusing their power. END SPOILERS
And perhaps Kate would be a more useful lens through which to critique the groups of power if she weren’t written by someone who defines her in no small part by her gender—an implicit affirmation of a different power structure, that of structural sexism. Kate’s coworker constantly comments on her looks, how she looks like shit and needs to get laid (he encourages her to buy a nice bra, something lacy). Thus, naturally, her big character moment is…almost getting laid. SPOILERS Worse yet, when she goes to hook up with a guy, it turns out that he’s secretly working for the cartels. He tries to kill her, but she’s saved by Alejandro. She was bait, although the circumstances seem at best coincidental and at worst like a giant plot hole.* Her sexuality, in an attempt to add some depth to her character, turns out to be a machination of the characters, a glorified plot device. And if all that isn’t enough, then consider why Alejandro is nice to her (and, possibly, doesn’t kill her): she reminds him of his daughter. She can’t be worthwhile to relate to on her own; she has to remind him of some other female that was a family member. END SPOILERS Kate always needs to validate herself, and only finds acceptance by a guy who can relate her to a family member.
All of this results in an impeccably made film that carries so much subtext as to implicitly support some really troubling ideas. I imagine that a lot of you couldn’t care less. Even those of you that could still might find Sicario to be a worthwhile experience. It’s a great movie, but one that I can’t help but find problematic. When people laugh at torture or murder, I am troubled. If that doesn’t bother you, then feel free to ignore all of this. Regardless, watch Sicario with an eye not for the set pieces or major plot points, but for the subtleties. Therein do the monsters lie.