A Dark Look at the War Against Mexican Drug Cartels


In Sicario, FBI Agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) and her partner Reggie Wayne (Daniel Kaluuya) have recently made a horrific discovery inside an Arizona suburban home. After losing one of their own agents, Macer is eager to go after the drug cartels who are behind these events. She is summoned by a unnamed government agency to join a task force led by Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) that will give her the opportunity to go after the individuals behind the events in Arizona.  Instead, she finds herself being caught up in a conflict that is beyond her own agenda to bring the criminals to justice. She will find herself in a battle, both real and political, that she is not equipped to handle.

Director Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners) grounds this tale in a gritty ultra-violent, yet never gratuitous, look at the dark forces on both sides of the drug-centered border war.  Much of his direction, and ability to build the suspense without succumbing to temptation to simply be an “action film”, is reminiscent of Michael Mann in his prime.  This is an urban crime drama. There are not “good guys” and “bad guys”, but simply people with agendas.  This world of the cartels and the government agents who pursue them is very gray, which is disconcerting to Agent Macer who very much believes in the notions of right and wrong, the rule of law, and justice.

Much like Prisoners, Sicario is a slow build with strong performances and lots of misdirection.  Every scene serves the larger narrative, including some of the seemingly more light-hearted ones like Agent Macer and Agent Wayne’s night out at a western bar.  Some of the intentions of these scenes are obvious, but Villeneuve is able to competently turn many of them on their head at the right moments to keep the tension taunt throughout.

The real star of this film, however is Benicio Del Toro, as Alejandro.  Working with the U.S. government’s task force, it is obvious from the beginning that he is not there for any noble purpose.  His role is never clearly marked out, but he is effective at interrogations, as well as assassinations. Serving as a mentor, colleague, and a even a threat to Agent Macer, Alejandro exudes tension in every scene regardless if it is warranted or not.

Watching Benicio Del Toro systematically carve his way through this conflict until his true motives are revealed, is part of what makes Sicario so compelling. As the later half of the film begins to focus on his agenda, it simultaneously draws you in, but it also seems to detach the audience from the competing agendas of the task force members that had been so intricately developed in the earlier part of the film.  How the audience feels about his ultimate goal will determine whether this detachment works or serves to weaken the story a bit.

Sicario does not hide the violence it portrays.  It also does not shove it in your face, either.  It simply exists as a part of a narrative that seems very natural to the story being told, and in many cases this makes it all the more chilling.  Often it is the more passive depictions of violence that have the larger impact.  The terrible find in the Arizona house.  The bodies hung from urban structures in Juarez, Mexico.  The camera just simply captures the moments as an active observer, much like the role of Agent Macer on this task force mission.

As violent as it is, it also provokes some larger questions about the role of violence in fighting violence.  Is it a necessary agent to defeat those who use it habitually, or should we rise above it?  Emily Blunt’s Agent Macer is wrestling with this very question even as she carries her firearm into the elaborate tunnel system that secretly runs between Mexico and the U.S. for the purpose of moving product, people, and weapons across the border.

Questions that are asked and left to the audience to answer include: To what lengths must our government be willing to go to fight the likes of these cartels?  Are we alright with that? Is there any justice on the Mexican side of the border, or are all such notions futile? The film asks the questions, but never tries to answer them for the audience.  It simply turns its camera on and presents the story.

And just as the border fence cuts through a deserted wasteland trapping people on both sides in a cycle of fear, and despair, Sicario seeks to do the same. Through this gritty, violent, urban crime drama comes some deep questions, and one of the first great films of the fall.