Caine Bird reviews Denis Villeneuve’s crime thriller
“Are you afraid of the dark?”
With a slight uneasiness, the words slip from Alejandro’s (Benicio Del Toro) breath, almost as if to anticipate the unsettling terrors lurking in the shadows of Denis Villeneuve’s nightmarish tale on the war on drugs. Indeed, it’s a pulpy, visceral thriller: Sicario represents the embittered, on-going tensions haunting the US/Mexico border, and the moral corruptness of US intervention in its Southern neighbour. This narco-thriller makes efficient use of familiar clichés and conventions, but Villeneuve’s playful tinkering with expectation calls into sharpish focus the tricky dilemmas at the heart of the drug war: are the tactics used in the war morally justified? Ultimately, then, Sicario is about not only the physical border, but legals borders too – how the law is read, upheld and practiced, the troubled relationship between the US and the foreign world and the thin line that divides noble men from their wicked counterparts.
A single shot captures the vastness of Mexico: the camera pans to reveal a spectacular mess of boxy houses. Meanwhile, across the highly patrolled border in the arid suburbia of Phoenix, fierce FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is on the hunt for criminals. Given her expertise, her quickness to the trigger and eager spirit, Macer is recruited into a task force briefed with the exhausting chore of amounting an armed assault on the cartel responsible for the growing drug trade. Gradually, the drama unspools and tensions boil, just as Macer’s conscience becomes the gravest causality of the war.
The film’s most guilty indulgence of cliché manifests in its presentation of Mexico and the city: its tragically deprived character is more akin to an unruly, hellish urban dystopia. The almost tortured aesthetic of the city, captured by the technical prowess of cinematographer Roger Deakins, offers a grizzled vision of Mexico. The city is seen swarming with unsavoury criminals, the streets are strung with mutilated corpses of men and women alike and the night skies are often ablaze with sabres of light and the crackle of distant gunfire. Such an odious snapshot of Mexico seems almost permanently ingrained into the film stock itself, unable to pry loose from the illusion of chaos and its association with drug culture.
Sicario thrives on this unforgiving portrait of crime. The muted use of greys and browns aptly suggests the feeling of Macer’s imprisonment within the urban setting. She, too, is barred within patriarchy, whereby amoral men rule the roost. Boogeymen are not only nestled in the dark recesses of Mexico, but also find comfort within the ranks of the US law enforcement.
At the helm of the clandestine op Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) is the greying shepherd in charge of cleaning up the mean streets of Mexico. He is a plump, carefree spirit, warping the law to benefit the mission; he often whisks his formidable Armada of black SUVs into quick action, traversing the southern borders with absolute disregard for laws of the land or for the life of his fellow comrades and foes.
Also in the business of killing softly, Alejandro is introduced as a kind of cure against the toxicity of the cartels and his character is angling for a disturbed sense of justice. Conversely, Macer is imbued with a military-like discipline and is a humble disciple of US law and moral obligation, despite the outside pressures to abandon the ethical high ground. Ultimately, Macer is forced to fight for survival in a world of bad men.
Sicario certainly has hustle. It’s a fashionably paranoid thriller, grovelling in a total distrust of institutions such as the US government. Sicario probes the depths of the FBI’s illegal and immoral sins in its intervention within foreign spaces. It’s unsurprising, then, that Mexico becomes an inglorious monument in the building of narratives around drug culture; especially as, according to numerous reports and interviews with Villeneuve and Blunt, the film is most comfortable dwelling in cultural and social grey zones. It does, however, momentarily depart from the familiar scripts of drug trafficking across boundaries to, importantly, investigate Macer’s role in the war.
Perhaps, in her case, ignorance is bliss.
Featured image credit: https://www.skip.at/film/21456/