In Cinema, Sicario Means Brilliant

Screen Shot 2015-09-27 at 9.44.42 AMFifteen years ago, Steven Soderbergh released his drug war epic Traffic, which co-starred Benicio del Toro and explored the various levels of the War On Drugs from the streets of Mexico to the prep schools of Cincinnati. It was a movie that illustrated just how devastating and widespread drugs had become and how they could corrupt anyone they touched. Now, we have Sicario, this one directed by Denis Villeneuve and also co-starring del Toro. While Traffic is about the insidious threat of drugs and how good people struggle to confront it, Sicario is about the equally-insidious war that is being waged in response, and how people are driven to terrible extremes trying to serve that goal.

Right away I should point out how confident and sometimes beautiful the visuals are in Sicario. Roger Deakins’ cinematography captures the sun-bleached day and pitch-black night with equal grace, scattering dozens of stunning shots throughout the film. And Denis Villeneuve takes those beautiful images and builds on them wonderfully, with some great sustained sequences of both action and tension. The film is always escalating and tightening, fully arresting the audience’s attention through every up-shift and down-shift. Mix in a score from Johann Johannsson that is somehow restrained while also being bombastically foreboding and even if the script sucked, Sicario would a terrific piece of mood and tension. Thankfully, the script very much does not suck, and provides a basis for Sicario to go from good to flat-out great.

The script for Sicario, from actor-turned-writer Taylor Sheridan, is incredibly focused from beginning to end. Almost all of the film is told from the perspective of Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) as she is swept up in this increasingly-militarized task force fighting the war on drugs in very questionable fashion. One great trick that the film uses at the beginning is that Kate is never given an explanation of the task force’s specific objectives or parameters. She, and by extension the audience, is kept in the dark, making most of the first half of the film an incredibly disorienting experience. Kate is completely bewildered by the circumstances under which she finds herself, and infuriated by the trigger-happy cowboy tactics employed by this paramilitary unit. The tension between Kate’s values and the apparent necessity of her new mission is the basis not just for Kate’s character arc in the film, but for the thematic core of the story as well.

Throughout the narrative, it is quite clear that these drug cartels are absolutely brutal organizations. They are deadly and intimidating and most authorities can’t even be trusted to fight them out of fear of corruption. But while the film fully acknowledges the threat of the cartels, it also makes it quite clear that this black-ops unit Kate joins is a danger all its own. Almost from the beginning, their tactics are a threat to the concepts of regulation and due process that must be the backbone of law enforcement, and as the film goes on it becomes apparent that they are complicit in something even worse. It’s into this moral chasm that Kate is unceremoniously dropped; she is caught between wanting to stop the obvious evil of the cartels and wanting to prevent her country for succumbing to a potentially greater moral failing in the process. While far from the most unique story beat for a film like this, it is realized here about as well as it ever has been, in large part because it is fully externalized in the personas and actions of the characters.

Sicario-Trailer-2-Starring-Emily-Blunt-and-Benicio-Del-ToroIt is clear from the start that Kate represents the middle of the road: she wants justice as swiftly as possible but is horrified when presented with an uncompromising method to achieve it. Emily Blunt plays this uncertain certainty with ease, shouldering the audience’s own shifting understanding of the situation and externalizing our own dueling values. Meanwhile, team leader Matt Graves represents the gung-ho, unearned certainty of Doing What Is Necessary. He has long ago concluded that these increasingly questionable actions are the only remaining option, and will not compromise his mission over anything as worthless as jurisdiction and procedure. Josh Brolin perfectly captures the seething anger buried beneath the cowboy swagger that are both indicative of the character as a whole. On the other end of the spectrum from Matt is Kate’s partner Reggie, another FBI agent who is suspicious of Matt’s operation from the beginning and fully disapproves of their methods the more he learns about them. Unlike Kate, he is not in the least bit tempted by the promise of real results against the cartels, as he firmly believes the law is more important. Reggie’s quiet nobility is conveyed with compelling calm by Daniel Kaluuya, who also has enough friendly chemistry with Blunt to keep Reggie from being a bland boy scout.

The final piece of the character (and thematic) puzzle is Alejandro, a supposed lawyer from Columbia serving as a consultant with the team. Unlike the trigger-happy special forces guys, Alejandro is eerily calm throughout, and never seems to take any pleasure or excitement in the proceedings. As the film progresses and we get glimpses into Alejandro’s past, it becomes clear that he represents the personal side of this war, the final result of the inevitable collateral damage of this unending conflict. Alejandro serves as a reminder that while this war is most directly waged by the United States and operatives like Kate, Matt and Reggie, it is Mexico and the rest of Latin America that suffers most of the damage. He does what he does because he really doesn’t have any other place in this world, the twisted child of the cartels’ brutality and the Americans’ obliviousness. Looking at him in this light, Alejandro is equally the most sympathetic and most terrifying figure in the film, which is perfectly summarized in a finale that is personally cathartic and morally devastating all at once. As great as Alejandro is on the page, he is made even better by Benicio del Toro’s impressive performance. He captures the contradictory and metaphorical nature of the character with a hypnotic charisma from beginning to end.

It is ultimately through Alejandro and his American collaborators that Sicario conveys the dehumanizing nature of the War On Drugs. We can see how even people with good intentions can be turned into dangerous monsters themselves, and those that aren’t are still scarred and broken beyond repair anyway. If Soderbergh’s Traffic was about the insidious influence of drugs and drug money, then Sicario is about the ugly moral decay that might just be inevitable in attempting to halt such an influence. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the end result is a grim and heavy movie, but one that is incredibly compelling all the same. Sicario might not reinvent the wheel of drug war movies, but it is undoubtedly one of the finest iterations of the genre yet.

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