There is a funny kind of tension at the heart of any Cops and Robbers narrative. It has to do with the fact that while cops (arguably) have rules they have to follow, robbers by their very nature are not bound to any code of conduct. In a sense, the conflict between criminals and anyone hoping to take them down is like a boxing match where one side wears gloves and won’t hit below the belt, while his opponent has a gun and is holding the other’s family hostage.
This divide is at the heart of you, Sicario, and yet what is perhaps most refreshing and thus most exciting about you is the matter of fact manner with which your characters cross that line. Of course they know what they are doing can be seen as “wrong,” but they don’t care, because the people who think that they are wrong are people who have no concept of what they are even talking about. Who among us would ever track down, tackle, and eviscerate an antelope with our bare teeth and hands? That would be wrong and possibly crazy of us. But try to tell that to a lion.
Your story begins with a hostage rescue mission in an Arizona suburb headed up by FBI Agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt). Her actions during the mission, which does not find the hostages but which does lead to two other, much more grim discoveries, land her on an interdepartmental task force headed up by the aloof, enigmatic Matt (Josh Brolin). Eager to do more than just respond to crises created by the war on drugs, Macer jumps at the chance to join a more proactive fight. Despite being courted by Matt, however, Macer finds herself marginalized and blindsided at every turn, not just by Matt (whose lack of title or last name speak to the shady nature of his place in the war) but by his right-hand man, Alejandro (Benicio del Toro).
The tension and uncertainly attacks the audience from all sides in this film. Macer doesn’t know exactly who she is working under, nor their stated objective. All her compatriots will tell her that they are there to “make noise.” Cartel hitmen and gangs operate on both sides of the border with no regard for their target or collateral. At various points in the film we realize that no one is safe, no one is in control, and no one seems to have anyone’s best interests at heart.
Your director, Denis Villeneuve (Enemy, Prisoners) is a master at drawing out every drip of anxiety from a given scene, lingering on small details and allowing the environment itself to howl cries of warning through its very lack of attention to those moving within it. Dust motes float through the air, the sun streams through a van window, the sun sets as it always does while guns fire and people die and the world turns slowly. An extended sequence involving a border crossing and prisoner exchange could serve as a master class of pacing, geography, and sound design in thriller sequences onto itself. The ratio of build-up to action should likewise be taken note of, especially in a cinematic world that seems to have forgotten that an explosion is thrilling because of its suddenness, not its duration.
Yet it is your message, your theme, and the way that your cast acts as notes within the moving strains of your symphony of violence and distrust and vengeance that cut most deeply. The drug war is a muddled morass of violence and vice, a chess game played with a countless number of pieces all done in shades of grey with ever-shifting rules defining their motions. Most times you can only determine a person’s allegiance by looking at who their gun is trained on, and you understand and portray this brutally. In one of the few moments where someone tries to justify their actions to Macer, who unravels in the most excruciating and ineffectual of ways, she is told that unless twenty percent of America can be convinced to stop snorting or smoking whatever it is they are on, this tactical response is their best option.
That is the thought process of a warrior fighting human nature. The demand will not stop, the money will always be enough to justify more and greater acts of violence, and thus sanctions and laws give way to bald extermination and containment. They say that when all a man has is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. You illustrate what happens when a man who maybe once had many tools is stripped of them, when hammer nails stops being good enough, and demolition suddenly becomes the only sane recourse left.
And all the while Agent Macer stands on the sidelines, hammer in hand, certain that there must be a better way, even as the world goes to hell around her. In most films her stolid sense of morality and justice would be an oasis in an otherwise amoral desert. But despite your big stars and beautiful photography and pulsing score, you are not a Hollywood tale. In your world, a moral center in a wicked universe isn’t a beacon of goodness, but an object of pity. Sooner or later, standing strong by your principles ceases to be laudable and begins to look like ignorance. Needless to say, in your world, Sicario, fools are not suffered gladly, and anyone without the guts to pull a trigger is only good for bogging down those with the will to act.
It’s a tough lesson – and not one that I think you condone even while showing it – but this is a tough world. You don’t have to agree, but you must admit to the cold logic of it. It’s a chilling message, but in the hands of your makers, it is expertly delivered and thrillingly realized.
Eager to see you again,
Brian J. Roan