Dir. Denis Villeneuve. USA. 2015

Talking Pictures alias







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The “War on Drugs,” first proclaimed by President Richard Nixon in 1971, escalated in the 1980s to the extent that by 1997 over 400,000 people were imprisoned for misdemeanor, nonviolent drug–related offenses. In an ideal world it would be easy to distinguish between the “good guys” and the “bad guys” working in the drug war, but in the world of intelligence agencies, drug kingpins, and local police, the distinction is murky and the end justifies the means, whether legal or not. In Dennis Villeneuve’s sizzling Sicario (Spanish for hit-man), written by Taylor Sheridan, the naïve and humane often find themselves only as pawns in the game. Such is the case with, Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), an idealistic FBI agent (is that an oxymoron?) who wants to play by the rules.

She is asked to join an interagency task force but has no clear idea of why she was selected, who the people really are that she is working with, or what the ultimate goal of the mission is. All she is told is that she and her colleague, Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya) will be assisting in hunting a dangerous drug lord, and that she will work with Matt (Josh Brolin), a disheveled looking man who wears flip-flops and a stout, enigmatic man named Alejandro (Benicio del Toro), both alleged government contractors working for the Department of Defense.

On their first meeting, Matt tells Kate, “Nothing will make sense to your American ears, and you will doubt everything we do.” When the truth eventually does come out, it does not in fact make sense and the results are not pretty. The film opens with a raid by the FBI and an Arizona SWAT team on a house owned by a drug lord near the Mexican border. To a pounding soundtrack by Johann Johannsson that ratchets up the intensity, the agents discover the gruesome sight of twenty-five dead bodies covered in plastic bags sealed into the walls of the house and a subsequent explosion that leaves several agents dead.

It is a high-octane opening that sets the tone for the rest of the film. Though Kate is told she will be going to El Paso, she finds herself in Ciudad Juarez, a seedy border town that looks like you just skipped purgatory for the real thing. In Juarez, the convoy of intelligence agents is accompanied by a police escort but Kate is told never to trust the police and to have her gun ready at all times. Along the way they come across one of the city’s main tourist attractions, rows of dismembered bodies, presumably of illegal immigrants, hanging on a highway overpass. The treats are just beginning, however.

Soon we will witness a fierce shootout at a border crossing as a convoy of intelligence agents is attempting to bring captured drug boss Guillermo Diaz (Edgar Arreloa) to the US, and a tunnel crossing project that is designed as a diversion to allow Alejandro to come back to Mexico to complete his murderous revenge mission. After Kate learns the truth about Alex and realizes that the purpose of the mission was not to stop the flow of illegal drugs into the U.S. but to see who can control them to maximum profit, she is told by Alejandro, “You will not survive here. You are not a wolf. This is the land of wolves now.”

Sicario is a tense and involving thriller with brilliantly conceived set pieces and outstanding performances by the three leads. It is Blunt, however, who is the standout, the moral center of the film whose choice to play the game or face death is a choice none of us should ever have to make. If the message of the film is just to tell us that moral compromise is the way the world works, it would not justify the screen being littered with dead bodies. It may, however, have a deeper message, one that suggests that legalization and regulation of the drug trade may be the only thing that could end this tragic standoff.


Howard Schumann

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