The cartel wars’ corrosive corruption and psychotic butchery that have been progressively pulverizing Mexican society for over a decade have just now begun registering as more than a blip on the American cultural consciousness. One would think that such horror-film savagery and rock-and-roll street combat happening right next door, with a constantly mutating cast of heroes who turn out to be villains and villains who turn out to be monsters, would have grabbed more attention sooner. But, then, it was only after Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper reimagined another murky conflict into a reassuring and essentially false good-guy crusader narrative that the public turned out in real numbers for an Iraq War film.
Now there is Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario, set in a U.S.-Mexico border zone awash in drug money, paranoia, and double-digit body counts. Emily Blunt (painfully miscast) plays Kate, an FBI agent who during a seemingly routine raid in an Arizona suburb stumbles into a cartel kill-house where the walls are filled with dozens of plastic-wrapped corpses, like some macabre art exhibit. Pulling that string gets her yanked into a larger cross-agency task force swaddled in official hush-hush.
Soon Kate’s riding in a convoy of black SUVs filled with close-lipped Special Forces types into Ciudad Juarez to escort a high-level cartel boss back to the States. She knows as well as the audience does that they’re not making it across the border without a firefight. What she doesn’t know is why they’re doing this, why she’s involved, or why everybody seems to think it’s even remotely legal. (For once, the FBI rule-following stickler is made out as the rational character instead of the villain.) Every question just invites snark from Matt (Josh Brolin), the flip-flop-wearing smart ass clearly hailing from some acronym agency, or gnomic pronouncements from the even more mysterious Alejandro (Benico Del Toro).
Sicario is a hard-nosed procedural for the post-post 9/11 era. Relevance to the modern era of imploding certainties is etched in every scene. Lines are blurred as spies, soldiers, federal agents, and cops are thrown into hybridized hunter outfits and sent after their targets in a landscape where morality comes in shades of grey and convenience. The film flashes on a collapsing social order, mutilated naked bodies swing underneath overpasses in Ciudad Juarez and hints of the same to come on the American side. The filmmakers put all they can into channeling the immediacy and drama of its bleak and beautiful setting, captured with stark beauty by Roger Deakins’ gloriously epic cinematography. But they don’t have any illusions about the interest of the wider world. After a couple carloads of second-rate cartel gunsels are shredded by the shooting-range-honed precision of the shadow-war veterans of Kate’s entourage, she’s told to shrug it off. “They won’t even make the paper in El Paso.”
There’s a shrugging noir lilt to all this that gives the film’s cynicism a properly worn-out attitude. That sensibility is best channeled by Brolin’s Matt, a gum-chewing cowboy who can barely conceal his love of the hunt, or any random old thing (“I love Texans”). It’s an eight-foot-tall swagger of a performance and the film noticeably sags when he’s not there propping it up with his “ain’t it great?” grin. It sags even more when the focus is too much on Kate, a depressed cipher who is there primarily to look baffled and get into harm’s way.
Also a cipher but an intriguing one is Alejandro, inhabited by Del Toro with more than his usual capacity for stealthy, sidling poetic menace. He’s the story’s voice of well-earned wisdom. Trying to elide Kate’s questions, he fends her off with a statement directed not at her but out into the dark, at us the audience. “Nothing will make sense to your American ears,” he says, wagging a rhetorical finger. “And you will doubt everything we do.”
Tautly constructed and impressively acted as it is, Sicario falls apart in the end. The script by Taylor Sheridan can’t maintain the sweep of its initial premise. It falls back on the improbable nature of the operation Kate’s been called into, substituting a cheap conspiratorial twist and unsatisfying revenge story for what had been a more journalistic brand of crime thriller.
But for all its indulgent mistakes, there’s something dire, hard to shake, and familiar seeming about the world conjured by the film. “This is the land of wolves now,” Alejandro informs Kate. Who among us watching the news wouldn’t agree with that statement, almost regardless of where it’s referring to?