Your time has come, hombre.
A bleak, haunting scent looms over the frames of Sicario: like decaying bodies that have laid in a drug dealer’s basement for a few days. It’s permanent and disturbing, and remains with you long after you’ve left the theater. In the opening slide, it is explained to us that Sicario is Spanish for hitman. I don’t know what disturbs me more in the movie: who the Sicario is, or who are the people that he’s hunting.
As the movie begins, we watch as a SWAT team is gearing up to raid a house in Chandler, Arizona. The neighborhood is relatively quiet. It’s serene. Calm. Normal. You would never have expected that the cartel was living in the midst of this slight, unsuspecting town.
FBI agent Kate Mercer (Emily Blunt) is one of the members on this team. After breaking into the house and engaging in a brief firefight, Mercer discovers the horrible fate of what the tenants did to a group of people they were holding hostage. As the team investigates the property, they go into the backyard and are killed after a bomb blows up from inside the shed. We don’t know how experienced an officer Mercer is, but after the raid, she’s obviously shaken and disturbed by what she saw. This mission has served as sort of a wake up call for her.
Despite her emotions, her superiors were so impressed by her performance that they recommend her for a special op with Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), a CIA officer tasked with finding Manuel Diaz (Bernardo P. Saracino), the cartel boss responsible for the drug plant in Arizona. Matt is offering Kate a chance to get back at the man who killed many of her men. Eager for a chance at payback, she accepts the offer.
When the film begins, I thought the movie was aiming to be a pro-imigration film, pausing and drawing out focus on the many darker sides of illegal immigration near the beginning of the film. This was interesting, I thought, because its rare for liberal Hollywood to go against the grain. As the film went on, however, I realized that the movie doesn’t have a stance on illegal immigration. It shows both sides of the issue, and how each side of the system is manipulating the other in this never-ending cycle of deceit and violence.
Meanwhile, innocents are getting dragged into this never-ending conflict like ants to an extermination. In one of the most pivotal scenes of the film, a kid is playing football in Mexico until he, along with his classmates and their parents, hear screams and gunshots a few blocks away from them. It’s something most of us can’t even imagine in rural America. It’s something children face every day in modern Mexico.
This is the greatest strength of the film, in that it functions in realism, not politics. It’s not interested in taking sides on the issue, because how would that lend to the story? What we have here is a morally-charged drama about characters trying to do the right thing in a world where “the right thing” doesn’t exist. Kate believes a line exists to maintain integrity and order. Matt believes a line exists for integrity and order, and can be manipulated to maintain that idea as such.
There’s one character I haven’t mentioned yet, and his name is Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro). He doesn’t believe a line even exists. Whatever ideas of order and chaos other people have doesn’t matter to him. In his eyes, they’re all one and the same.
Del Toro’s character fascinates me. In many ways, he is the heart of the film. He’s elusive. Mysterious. Unforgiving. Empathetic. Dangerous. He’s helping Matt and Kate, but we sense he’s not here for their end purposes as much as he is for his own. He’s manipulative, yet sympathetic, extending kindness to Kate as if she’s just a little kid suddenly thrown into a grown-up’s world. The third act of the film focuses more on him than it does Kate, and it should. What we’re seeing here is not a progression of character, but a progression of events. The climax itself provides one of the most exciting and unnerving thrills I’ve seen this year: yes, even more so than The Martian and Mad Max. That’s because the stakes are set up masterfully well, and by the end of the film, we understand the characters and the quiet motives that compel them.
This is a nearly perfect film in which all of the elements form together into an excellent scope of filmmaking. The actors are brilliant and could catch your attention just by reading their lines. Director Dennis Villeneuve evokes a sense of hopelessness and desperation from its setting. The cinematography by Roger Deakins captures this aesthetic perfectly and with great focus to detail, while the editor Joe Walker knows how to cut in between angles and shots to help construct coherent ideas in the viewer’s minds. In short, my only complaint is that the film is violent and disturbing. But then again, it’s supposed to be violent and disturbing. What service would that do the viewer if you hid from them the truth?
In one of my favorite scenes from the film, Alejandro tells Kate that there is no book for her to go by anymore. That it’s only a world full of wolves now. I believe him when he says that, and I think Kate ends up believing him as well. The question, then, is this: who are the sheep, and who are the wolves?