Movie Review: Sicario (2015)
We get quiet interludes throughout, otherworldly, overhead shots that make the desert landscape around the U.S.-Mexican border seem like the moon. It seems like another world. Which it is. That’s the point that director Denis Villeneuve (“Incendies”) and cinematographer Roger Deakins (everything) seem to be making. That’s what FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is finding out. She’s not in Kansas anymore.
Kate is our eyes and ears here. She’s our main character, the most important person to the story—or so we assume in the beginning. But “Sicario” is good at upending tropes. We may, for example, be learning everything along with Kate, and rooting for her, but she’s not the most important person to the story. You could argue she’s not even our main character.
You could argue she’s the least important person to the story.
In the dark
The movie opens in Chandler, Ariz., as an FBI SWAT team, led by Kate and Reggie Wayne (Daniel Kaluuya), crash through the wall of a bleached-out house in their armor-plated HUMVEE, sending sprawling a Mexican dude watching TV. For a second you think, “Wow, that’s excessive.” Then Kate and Reggie are shot at. They discover bodies in the wall, 41 total, heads wrapped in smeared, bloodied plastic. In a shed out back, an IED is tripped and two officers die. It’s a warning from the filmmakers: our notion of “excessive” will keep changing.
In a conference room, we meet Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), the man heading a task force to take down cartel leader Manuel Diaz (Bernardo P. Saracino). Wearing flip flops, Matt sizes up Kate and Reggie and ultimately opts to put Kate on his team. He seems pleased with her background and gumption. Too pleased? There’s something off about his reaction. He seems effusive and dismissive at the same time.
So Kate goes from the smartest in the class to the dumbest, with the teacher showing no interest in helping her catch up. Why is she there? What’s her purpose? Who’s running things anyway? DOD? CIA? The men around her are Delta Force, brawny, bearded combat veterans who share a history, a shorthand, a breezy, ball-busting attitude. The two outsiders are Kate and Alejandro (Benicio del Toro), a quiet Columbian who has nightmares, cold eyes, and a tragic past.
The first op is an incursion into Juarez, Mexico, just across the border from El Paso, to extract Diaz’s brother, Guillermo (Edgar Arreola), from prison. The team has a fleet of black SUVs and cooperation from the Juarez police—as much as it can be trusted. Juarez, we find, is virtually lawless. Mutilated bodies hang from overpasses and sporadic automatic weapons fire is heard in the distance. The difficulty with the extradition, Kate is told, is on the way back, at the border-crossing; and indeed, instead of the clear path they’ve been given throughout, they’re stuck in traffic on the bridge. Everyone’s suddenly alert, wary. A gunfight breaks out, but we never really know if the gangbangers were gunning for Matt’s team or each other. We remain, like Kate, in the dark.
She’s interested in process, in building a case, and objects to Matt’s extralegal methods. Guillermo is tortured by Alejandro, laundered money is seized, a corrupt American cop beaten. “This is the future, Kate,” Matt says to her. At one point, he and Reggie have this exchange:
Reggie (to Kate): You OK?
Matt: She’s alright.
Reggie: I didn’t ask you.
Matt: And yet I answered.
What’s Matt’s goal? To make enough noise on the U.S. side so Diaz will go see his boss on the Mexican side. “Then we’ll know where his boss is,” he says.
But it’s more than He’s playing the long game. He’s doing with the drug trade what we did in Iran in 1953, Guatemala in ’54 and Chile in ’73.
In the beginning, we’re told that “sicario” means hitman in Mexico, so throughout we’re wondering who the title character is. Kate? Or the Mexican cop with the wife and kid and drinking problem that we keep cutting back to? Do their paths cross? Does he take her out or she him?
Neither. It’s after a tunnel between Mexico and the U.S. is found (so much for your giant wall, Mr. Trump), during an op in the dark with night goggles, that all of our tropes are upended.
Kate and Reggie, bringing up the rear, exchange gunfire with a narco, and Kate takes him down. She’s pissed. You finally feel she’s fed up and taking control of a chaotic, lawless situation. On the Mexican side, she finds Alejandro with a gun on our Mexican cop, who’s delivering drugs, and she yells at Alejandro, “Move away from him right now!”
And Alejandro shoots her in the chest.
She’s wearing body armor so she doesn’t die. But as he stands over her, he says, with a modicum of heat, “Don’t ever point a weapon at me again.” Then he moves forward with Silvio to take out the cartel leader, while she returns to the U.S., where the rest of the team is waiting. In her anger, she attacks Matt.
And he decks her.
That’s when we get the rest of the story.
Why is she along? Because any CIA operation on U.S. soil needs FBI cover. What is the mission? To send Alejandro through the tunnel to get the leader of the cartel, who killed his wife and daughter. He’s the sicario. More, he’s part of the Medellin cartel that held power in the early 1990s. The CIA is working with him to restore the Columbians to power, so they can return some sense of order to the border. It’s “providing a measure of order that we can control,” Matt says. It regime change.
And Kate? Our hero? She’s a dupe, a stooge. There’s hardly a moment in the movie where she’s not out of her element. She goes into the bank when she shouldn’t, takes home a local corrupt cop who tries to kill her, and winds up signing an exonerating paper for the CIA at gunpoint. “You look like a little girl when you’re scared,” Alejandro tells her at the end. He urges her to leave the area. “You are not a wolf. And this is the land of wolves now.”
“Sicario” is a stunning movie: visually, dramatically, ethically. How true is it? I’m sure liberties were taken. The larger truth is about how thin our veneer of civilization is, and how brutal things can be—and are, somewhere, right now. Most movies are wish-fulfillment fantasy. We leave the theater thinking we’re stronger, braver, better-looking than we are. Not here. I left thinking I was like Kate, and the world was full of wolves.