The art of the American paranoia thriller, perfected in the 1970s by a slew of New Hollywood acolytes, has transmuted into a new set of cinematic dialectics as a means of reacting to the nascent stages of the 21st Century. The sinister and perpetually mysterious perpetrator of nefarious plots has been, and still remains, the U.S. Government, albeit in the context of the War on Terror. Antiheroes such as Jason Bourne have arisen in this brave new world and have indulged in the fantasy of the singular hero overcoming nearly implacable foes, thus becoming a standard trope in major blockbusters in a post-9/11 Hollywood. That’s what makes Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario such an intriguing entry in the subgenre of intellectual action pictures. It bears a superficial resemblance to Traffic in terms of subject matter, but closer inspection yields a greater kinship with films like Chinatown or The Conversation that pitted its characters within the confines of a labyrinthine construct bent on breaking them until they submitted to its Machiavellian designs or were otherwise destroyed.
Of the players at the core of this hellish drama, Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is the one who serves most ably as our surrogate figure. She bears a strong skill set in her area of expertise as a SWAT agent for the FBI, and in the film’s harrowing prologue carries herself with aplomb, even when her team discover a house in Chandler, Arizona filled to the brim with decayed, bloody bodies. Suspecting the handiwork of the ruthless drug lord Fausto Alarcon (Raul Trujillo), Macer is enlisted in a covert task force led by the alternately insouciant and indefatigable Matt Graver (Josh Brolin). Graver elicits the majority of the laughs to be found within the black humor of the film, with his gung-ho demeanor matched only by his preferred attire of shorts and flip-flops. He could be viewed as a doppelgänger of sorts to Brolin’s Bigfoot Bjornsen in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice, though on a federal level. If Graver isn’t an outright clown, it’s only because he wields a frightening amount of authority behind a seemingly lackadaisical visage.
Another key participant who is more than he initially appears to be is Alejandro (Benicio del Toro), the stoic “consultant” for the team. Kate firmly prods Alejandro for more information regarding the logistics of their mission, only for him to tersely reply, “You’re asking me how a watch works. For now, let’s keep an eye on the time.” Alejandro’s true role in this operation, as well as what motivates him, are withheld until the climax from both Kate and the audience, as is much of Graver’s overall plan. Villeneuve and Taylor Sheridan’s script deftly aligns us with Kate’s perspective for the majority of the tale while subtly offering brief glimpses not only of Alejandro and Graver outside of Kate’s periphery but also of a patrol officer named Silvio (Maximiliano Hernández) whose connection with the cartel is implicitly understood before it is explicitly explained. The resultant effect is one that grants the audience cognizance of their role as voyeur separate from the characters without completely alienating us from the trauma experienced by the people ensconced within the unfolding tragedy.
Indeed, the story of Sicario is one of despairing repercussions for the strong female hero at its center. We witness Kate’s descent into morally murky terrain that is dominated by an aggressive machismo presence until it becomes literally actualized in a stunning shot of an outfit of soldiers disappearing into the bottom of the frame near dusk. The jaundiced look of the film, lensed by the master cinematographer Roger Deakins, imbues the Mexican vistas with a banal sense of dread much like his earlier work for the Coens in No Country for Old Men. Whereas that parable of good and evil presented its chief dichotomy with clarity through the subversion of archetypes within the Western genre, Sicario presents its violent horrors with even more clinical remove. One clear-cut example is of three executed victims of the cartel briefly seen strung over the side of a bridge in the city of Juarez like sacks of meat. While Kate reacts to the grisly scene with disgust her peers and the residents of Juarez regard it as commonplace. The attitude of the others is reinforced through the camera’s static position within the convoy that drives by the bodies, as if these atrocities can only be understood on an abstract level rather than a visceral one. Consequently, the majority of the most brutal violence occurs off-screen with the most harrowing scenes in the entire film involving Kate, as either a participant, a witness, or even a victim. Whether she survives the film’s final reel is almost secondary to the preservation of her integrity, and I will leave you to discover the answers to both of these questions on your own.
Ultimately, Sicario takes the conflict of the War on Drugs to explore more deeply-entrenched problems within the American character, including racism, sexism, and capitalist exploitation all within the framework of a genre picture. While not an investigative act of cinematic journalism, it nevertheless harks back to a bygone era of political filmmaking in America that, now more than ever, is in dire need of resurrection. When one character firmly states that “the boundary’s been moved”, it can double not only as a comment on moral fortitude but also on the state of popular socially-conscious cinema itself. The settings and the rules of warfare are constantly changing, but the insidious ideology that keeps these acts of barbarism alive on both sides remains the same. As much could be said about Sicario and its cinematic forbears; all indictments of corruption that remain as troubling now as they have ever been and will continue being.