“Nothing is going to make sense to your American ears.” Menacing as he might be, Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) is at the same time seductive, instructing the newest member of a US interagency task force headed into Mexico. At once wily and stern, Alejandro assumes that FBI agent Kate (Emily Blunt) is naïve, despite and because of her experience tracking down narcotics traffickers in the US. Alejandro’s disdain here is conspicuous, and so she gazes back at him, doing her best to establish her own authority and also contain her own outrage.
Authority and outrage both go a long way toward defining the cause in Sicario, Denis Villeneuve’s grim contemplation of the ongoing drug war. Alejandro, a Mexican prosecutor turned assassin, is a familiar type in movies, angry and anguished, brilliant and deadly, prone to showing up at any time in any situation perfectly prepared. Though he might sound like he’s blaming her lack of comprehension on her being American, throughout the film, she’s also blamed for being a girl.
This is a complicated process in Sicario. Even as Kate faces men’s scrutiny and misgivings, must turn away their assaults and disprove their assumptions, she’s also presented as a skilled and emphatically ethical agent. This makes her admirable and sympathetic, of course, and so, quite like the usual newbie who comes into a corrupt situation, horrified by what she sees so that you can share in that horror and worry for her. In this case, the horror is hardly surprising: US alphabet agencies — the CIA, the DEA, the FBI — make use of motivated, sometimes less than stable individuals in order to achieve goals that might be best described as morally questionable.
Here again, the goal is an elusive, all-powerful druglord, this time named Fausto Alcaron (Julio Cedillo). Both Alejandro and Kate are brought on by a government contractor, Matt (Josh Brolin), respected for his ability to get jobs done by any means. He doesn’t so much integrate his team (which includes bald and bearded mercenaries and local lawmen with cowboy hats and big mustaches) as he keeps each piece separate, his control absolute and his trust in Alejandro profound. Initially he resists Kate’s suggestion that her FBI partner Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya) come along. He’s an Afghanistan war veteran, which might be fine, but he’s also been to school. “We don’t need any lawyers on this beat,” Matt observes.
The reason for that seems obvious, but Reg does come along, apparently to ensure Kate’s cooperation. What makes her so desirable is a little unclear, but Blunt imbues her with a combination of fierceness and resolve that help you to ride with the narrative illogic. She’s mad at this particular druglord for good enough reasons, made explicit at film’s start. When she and her team come upon a death house and lose some team members to a booby trap she might have anticipated — in a scene exquisitely orchestrated — she’s pretty easily invested in the mission Matt offers.
When she starts to see more mess, increasing numbers of off-the-books sort of actions committed by Matt’s guys, however, Kate protests. When she asks Alejandro what he’s up to, she’s instructed to mind her business. “You’re asking me how a watch works,” he says slowly, “For now, just keep an eye on the time.”
Kate’s dilemma becomes yours, more or less. Framed mostly by her limited view, Sicario constructs a certain tension out of what you don’t see, what might lurk around a corner or be hidden in nearby shadows. That’s not to say you can’t anticipate trouble, which appears to be more than Kate can do. Of course, you have the benefit of a slow pan or a close-up, so you might see a man across a bar in a way she doesn’t or might guess that going into an underground cartel’s tunnel when she’s been told not to will lead to dangerous discoveries and bloodshed.
Still, what you do see in any film shot by Roger Deakins is equally crucial and sometimes powerful beyond words. More than once, the camera hovers far overhead, so the deserts, highways or mountains below seem impossibly distant and illegible, whether the endless impoverishment of Ciudad Juárez or the thin strand of border crossing over into the US. As the drug runners travel below ground, the surface offers no clues, only desperation and loss. Likewise, the camera watches implacably as Matt and his men make their way over a slight, orange-burned horizon, disappearing into a night that will fill the next sequence, one already famous for its green NVG effects, the spiritual chaos of not being able to see what you’re looking at.
Kate suffers this chaos in most every scene in the movie, and she’s punished for it. She’s afraid and she’s injured and she’s reminded that she’s a woman. Alejandro, of all people, acts as if he’s taken a special interest in her, that she reminds him of someone he once loved. “You look like a little girl when you’re scared,” he says, almost in tenderness but also as means to intimidate. When you at last see what she cannot, when the plot plays out to its inevitable end, you might even feel glad for her, that she doesn’t have to see this, what being victorious costs, what it means to win. Or more accurately, what it means to think you win. For this is the point that Sicario makes most forcefully, that no one can win this war.