If Zero Dark Thirty were a good film, it would look something like Sicario. Unlike Kathryn Bigelow’s bloated CIA propaganda, Sicario not only has intelligent, subversive politics. It has a tightly written script that keeps you guessing until the very end. It won well-deserved Academy Award nominations for Best Cinematography (the takes in Sicario are so well constructed they make the photography in other action films look like remedial cinematography), Best Original Score, and Best Sound Editing. It’s one of the best films of 2015.
On the surface, Sicario follows the conventions of pro-security-state propaganda pioneered by films like Silence of the Lambs. The film opens with Special Agent Kate Mercer, Emily Blunt cast in the Jodie Foster role, leading a SWAT team against a Sonora Cartel safe house somewhere in Phoenix. It’s fascist propaganda. If you were ever tempted to wonder why big city police departments need tanks, body armor, and automatic rifles, you won’t after the eminently fuckable Ms. Blunt — it’s hard to look away from her — kicks down a door and takes out a shotgun wielding narco thug with one burst from her AR15. That’s only the beginning. “What the fuck?” her partner Reggie Wayne, a young African American lawyer and FBI trainee played by Daniel Kaluuya, says as he rips open part of the wall. What he reveals not only makes you thankful the Phoenix Police Department has a heavily militarized police force. It makes you wonder if if an FBI SWAT team is really enough to fight the Sonora Cartel. I wouldn’t want to into a house like that unless I had a platoon of Navy Seals.
Soon, Kate Mercer gets just that. Dave Jennings, her superior at the bureau played by Victor Garber, calls her into his office to offer her a position on a joint Department of Defense-CIA task put together to hunt down and hopefully arrest Manuel Diaz, the Sonora Cartel lieutenant responsible for the house of horrors in Phoenix. With Jennings are two mysterious, but obviously important men, Matt Graver, a CIA agent played by Josh Brolin, and an ex-Colombian prosecutor named Alejandro Gillick, Benicio Del Toro playing the scariest badass this side of Clint Eastwood’s “man with no name.” While the opening of Sicario was pure Silence of the Lambs/Zero Dark Thirty style government propaganda, director Denis Villeneuve throws us a curve ball Graver and Gillick want Kate Mercer. They don’t want Reggie Wayne. “We don’t need any lawyers on this detail,” Graver says, alerting anybody who’s ever read Richard III – “first we kill all the lawyers” – that the “opportunity” Dave Jennings is offering his young subordinate is more than a little shady. Dave Jennings, in fact, is a terrible supervisor. Like Jack Crawford, Jodie Foster’s superior in Silence of the Lambs played by Scott Glenn, Jennings is withholding information from his young agent. Unlike Jack Crawford, he doesn’t have her best interests in mind. He’s not only a cog in the government machine. He won’t even defend FBI turf against the CIA. Welcome to post-Patriot Act America.
Sicario’s opening is such a virtuoso piece of film making it’s difficult to imagine the rest of the film not being a letdown, but no. Sicario’s second act is almost as good. Since Kate Mercer has no idea what’s going on, she becomes, in effect, the audience’s surrogate, a witness to transformation of the American security state into a gang of amoral gangsters. Her physical beauty expresses a human vulnerability amidst the appalling carnage going on all around her, and what the camera is doing is not really objectification but identification. Since it’s so hard to look away from her, it’s even more difficult to look away from her point of view. To understand the second act of Sicario, it helps to know that Villeneuve developed the plot during the very height of the drug war in Juarez, Mexico, which at the time was one of the most violent cities in the world, a virtual war zone. The joint DOD-CIA operation headed by Graver and Gillick has been assigned to extradite Manuel Diaz’s brother from Mexico to the United States. In any other city, that would mean sending a couple of US Marshals to the Mexican authorities to bring him back in handcuffs, but since the Sonora Cartel isn’t going to allow one of their top lieutenants to be carried across the border without a fight, it takes three SUVs full of Navy Seals, and a convey of Mexican Federales in pickup trucks armed with machine guns. Sicario’s Juarez is such a violent place it makes the favela in City of God look like a nice American suburb. Not only will the mutilated bodies hanging underneath a bridge recall the Iraq War in 2004, the remarkable sense of paranoia Villeneuve manages to build will remind you of Vietnam. Mercer may be riding with a platoon of Navy Seals, but until they cross the border back into the United States at El Paso, death could come from any direction.
The climax of Sicario’s second act is a shootout just over the bridge from Juarez and into El Paso. Gillick and Graver’s team clear immigration only to get hung up in a traffic jam just over the United States border. As the caravan inches its way forward, Grave and Gillick notice one car, then two, filled with Sonora Cartel soldiers setting up an ambush. That the outcome of the firefight is a foregone conclusion — don’t fuck with a platoon of Navy Seals — makes it no less suspenseful. Villeneuve puts us in the boots of American soldiers fighting a guerrilla war. Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, El Paso, Graver intimates to Kate Mercer when she protests the operation’s dubious legality, the conflict between the global south and the global north has come home to the American Southwest. It sounds like Trumpite propaganda, and to be honest, that’s the way a Tea Partier will take it – “we’re being invaded” – but in Villeneuve’s imagination things are a lot more complex. After Graver and Gillick torture Manuel Diaz’s brother – the large plastic container Gillick carries into the interrogation session strongly hints that it’s actually an “enhanced” interrogation session that probably involves waterboarding – and extract the methods Diaz uses to launder money as well as a secrete tunnel running across the United States, Mexican border used by narcotrafficker, Kate Mercer wants to start making arrests. That’s not what Graver and Gillick, nor, for that matter, Dave Jennings, want. When men like this talk about a “war” on drugs, they mean a literal war.
After a brief interlude, where Kate Mercer is almost murdered by a prospective one-night-stand, who’s actually a dirty cop working for the cartel, the third act beings. We find out not only what Graver and Gillick really want, but why it’s called “Sicario,” Spanish for “hitman” in the first place. Gillick, we begin to notice, like Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs, begins to see himself as a kind of dark father figure to the film’s young, female protagonist. Who is this man? Mercer, wonders. What does he want? The “sicario” of the film’s title is in fact Alejandro Gillick. A former state prosecutor in Columbia, he had to watch Manuel Diaz’s boss Fausto Alarcón kill his wife and lower his daughter into a vat of acid right in front of his eyes. The first two acts of Sicario were a masterful piece of misdirection. Unlike Silence of the Lambs and Zero Dark Thirty, Sicario is not pro-security-state propaganda. It’s a revenge film. Gillick has decided to work with the CIA, not because he wants to enforce the law, but because he wants to track down Fausto Alarcón, get past his security, and laugh as he watches him die. The CIA and the American government, in turn, will give Gillick what he wants, not because the want to enforce the law, but because they want to get hold of the drug trade in the southwest, to concentrate all narcotics trafficking in the hands of one man they can control and kill off all his competition. They want Fausto Alarcón, whom they can’t control, dead. They don’t care how many rules they have to break to do it. The CIA and the FBI are nothing but more heavily armed gangsters.
If the third act of Sicario is weaker than the first two, it’s not because it’s any less tense or exciting, but because it’s so much less plausible. Alejandro Gillick is more than just a man. Indeed, the third of Sicario, is a superman story. Gillick’s rage has turned him into a cross between Dirty Harry and The Terminator. Graver, Kate Mercer, the platoon of Navy Seals, the whole joint DOD-CIA operation has been a ruse, a misdirection, to get Gillick back into Mexico and put him face to face with Fausto Alarcón. The more implausible Gillick’s descent into the heart of the Sonoran darkness becomes – he leaves a body count that surpasses some war films – the more demoralizing and disempowering Sicario becomes. Instead of driving a stake into the heart of pro-government Hollywood propaganda, Villeneuve, who’s limited by the action, revenge, thriller genre, goes down the path Richard Slotkin describes in his classic work Regeneration through Violence. Mexico, in effect, becomes “Indian territory,” and Gillick “the man who knew Indians,” the professional gunfighter and mercenary who goes to places neither we, nor Kate Mercer, who becomes almost irrelevant in the third act of the movie, can follow. He also commits an unspeakable act of evil that lifts Sicario above the typical Dirty Harry film – Harry never killed innocents – and hints at the kind of political critique of the American security state that Sicario might have been had it not pulled back at the last minute. Indeed, it’s hard to know what to make of Sicario’s very last scene, where Gillick meets Kate Mercer and, like Hannibal Lecter towards Clarice Starling, decides that the world is a more interesting place with in it. Even though the film studio has planned a sequel – with Brolin and Del Toro but without Denis Villeneuve and Emily Blunt — there doesn’t seem to be anywhere for his character to go. He’s already reached the ninth circle of hell.