by Ken B.
In Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario, the War on Drugs is unambiguously screwed. This doesn’t differentiate it from the real world very much, of course, but the acknowledgement is unusual in the sense that few major films address this issue head-on, especially in a way as morally complex as this one. Taylor Sheridan’s screenplay doesn’t draw boundaries, and presents characters falling somewhere between Machiavellian, fully believing that the ends justify the means, and idealists, who trust the natural order of good cleanly defeating evil. There are extremes, but it is never assumed that one ideology is inherently better than the other. Set around 2010, as rampant drug war violence led cities like Ciudad Juárez as close to lawlessness as they had been in decades, Villeneuve paints an exceedingly bleak picture of the United States and Mexico’s grim failure in stemming the power flow of the cartels.
Emily Blunt stars as Kate Mercer, a pie-in-the-sky FBI agent who is assigned to a new cross-departmental task force to infiltrate a ring which shows possibly terroristic signs. Kate works under the leadership of two peculiar CIA agents – the off-puttingly informal Matt Garver (Josh Brolin) and the steely, mysterious Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro). As the mission heads south of the border, Kate’s by-the-book hopefulness comes into conflict with Matt and Alejandro’s decidedly rougher tactics – one of the first actions of the group is engaging in a fatal shootout on a bridge, despite having dozens of cars filled with innocent civilians all around them. After a while, Kate and her partner Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya) are ready to call it quits, but are unable to convince their superiors to accept their resignations. After all, the argument that what the team is doing is “over the line” is invalid – as FBI admin Dave Jennings (Victor Garber) points out, the line has been moved just for them. Soon, Kate comes to terms with the fact that the status of her moral compass puts her in the minority, and as she prods further, learns that it’s a belief which could put her life on the line.
Sicario is sharply directed, intelligently written, dynamically acted, and beautifully filmed. Cinematographer Roger Deakins delivers another expertly framed project, with an array of shot types – bright, aerial exteriors juxtaposed with cramped, filthy interiors, and a tight sequence at the start of the third act featuring a pitch-perfect application of “night vision”. Director Denis Villeneuve smartly guides his cast: Blunt’s slow evolution as a character is compelling – as Kate realizes the startling truth of her allies’ motives, her naivety melts away. However, the most complicated and noteworthy performance in the film is del Toro’s. When we first meet the character of Alejandro, he sits quietly in the backseat of an airplane cabin, staring intently, entirely silent. By the end of the movie’s 121 minute runtime, he is the unofficial centerpiece of the story, integral to the climax and Kate’s character development. As Alejandro becomes a character of extreme emotional drive, taken to commit drastic actions, del Toro’s carefully measured acting ensures that no particular behavior seems out of place.
This cerebral play of ideology and humanity could only be established, however, by the script, and writer Taylor Sheridan sets a firm foundation of uncertainty which the cast and crew build upon. Moral ambiguity is very difficult to write in a sufficiently intriguing or realistic way, but Sheridan’s twisting, turning work dips into the ether of his character’s psyches and results in a deeply watchable movie. There’s something more substantive here stacked against a backdrop of white-knuckle action sequences. Villeneuve realizes this, and takes great care in preserving this balance in bringing the screenplay to life, with this mood underlined by a moribund score from Jóhann Jóhannson.
In Sicario, the concept of “good guys and bad guys” is laughable. Is ineffectively, idealistically hoping for structure and justice without knowing how to get there any better than achieving direct closure through a trail of blood? As outsiders, we would both consider the characters who hold these views “good guys” because of their allegiance, but there’s a lot more to it in reality. In the aftermath of the failure that was/is the War on Drugs, the governmental approach of militarizing bad groups to dismantle worse groups creates new enemies and an endless vacuum of violence and disorder. Personal compromises are the norm, and are subsequently halved further and further by those longing for a solace which is never fully achieved.