The complex, moral conundrums of “Sicario”

Courtesy of Lionsgate Films.
Courtesy of Lionsgate Films.

Let me preface this review by stating: this is a cruel and complex film, for a cruel and complex reality. “Sicario” which means “hitman” in Spanish, is Denis Villeneuve’s fourth film and stars Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro. The narrative focuses on a state agent, Kate Mercer (Emily Blunt) who is recruited by a federal task force for a covert operation on the border. This operation is shrouded in mystery, and its parameters are never quite defined, nor its objectives clearly stated. This movie is a thrilling foray into the war on drugs, and the havoc that this war has created in Juarez.

The first is incredibly disturbing — an FBI raid on a house in Arizona that contains close to 35 dead bodies sealed in its walls. This raid leads to virtually all of the officers puking outside the house once the bodies have been discovered, only for the officers outside to be killed by a landmine planted by the cartel. After this episode, which explicitly shows the severed limbs of the agents and the bodies, a task force is convened to, in Brolin’s’ characters words, “to react dramatically.”

This “reaction” is deliberately vague, and at first Kate seems to be skeptical of joining this vague operation. All that is known is that the agency is tracking the upper echelons of the Sonora cartel, and that this will involve extracting information from different cartel members as to the whereabouts of the cartel leaders. What becomes evident, as the narrative unfurls, is that this operation is increasingly going to be eschewing legality and procedure, and unleashing what may be a dangerously illegal amount of violence that seems more like an act of retribution than an attempt at restoring order.

The film’s strongest aspect is that it forces the audience to clearly think about the violence the war on drugs has caused and the way this violence is mapped onto mutilated bodies and corpses. Villeneuve takes an unflinching look at how this violence is so hidden from citizens in the first world, and how it all makes so little sense to people living comfortably in the first world. Before the first mission in Juarez, Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) states to Kate, “Stay close. Nothing there will make sense to your American ears.”

However, apart from fixating solely on cartel violence, “Sicario” explores the response by agents to this violence. The operation begins with an illegal foray over the border into Juarez, and catalogues the brutality of the methods and strategies employed by the secretive task force. The operation ends in a shootout on the border, with American agents open-firing on a crowded, traffic stopped freeway with civilians.

The best part of the film is Del Toro’s acting. His role is incredibly restrained, and his character comes across as a calculating, ruthless, and yet humane individual. While Brolin’s role as federal agent Matt is less dominating on the screen, his performance is as great as Del Toro’s. His character is cunning, and seems to have no moral qualms about any of the violence that he is responsible for, always on screen with a disarming, and creepy, smile on his face. In the hands of a lesser actor the subtle insanity that Matt displays would be overplayed.

The film is paced quite slow, with a lot of intermediary shots and dialogue occurring before any of the action, and this slowness is doubled up by Villeneuve’s camerawork. The camera is fluid, meandering until the action is caught in the center of the frame. While this meandering and fluid camera work slows the film down even more, “Sicario” is buoyed up by Johansson’s brilliant score. The rumbling bass and cello work perfectly in tandem with the camerawork to instill a sense of menace into virtually every scene. Moreover, Roger Deakins’ cinematography perfectly captures the urban sprawl of Juarez, showing the chaos of the city.

“Sicario” finds an astute political observer in Denis Villeneuve. This movie is deeply engaging, troubling and at times problematic: the hallmarks of a masterpiece.

Rating: 4.5 stars

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