“For now let’s just keep an eye on the time”
There should be no illusions that Denis Villeneuve‘s Sicario will deliver a story we haven’t seen before. Any action thriller set at the Mexican border between El Paso and Juarez is bringing heavy artillery, copious drugs, and amoral warlords on both sides of the fence/law. First-time screenwriter Taylor Sheridan of “Sons of Anarchy” fame knows this and therefore decides to place a slightly different spin on the proceedings. Rather than watch from the vantage point of those looking to deal an illegal brand of smirking, “Oorah” justice, we find ourselves in the shoes of FBI Agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) caught in their wake. An idealistic cop seeking lawful, by-the-books retribution, volunteering for front row seats to deserved payback quickly proves hazardous to her health.
It’s a welcome conceit and a fresh way to provide us an entry point into the wild and crazy world of cartel warfare. The easy way to tell the story is to align with Matt Graver’s (Josh Brolin) is-he-a-DOD-advisor-or-CIA-operative authoritarian as he readies a covert team lead by the mysterious former Colombian attorney Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) who appears better-suited to automatic weaponry than a courtroom. Their actions would become justified because they are the default “good guys” doing what’s necessary to dismantle a foreign enemy much like Jack Bauer in “24”. Waterboarding? Tuning up a suspect without remorse? If it earns quality intelligence it can be forgiven. Hell, it is even preferred. Who doesn’t like a bit of playground fisticuffs where actual lives are on the line?
Sheridan and Villeneuve still need these characters—because we do sadly depend on those who revel in moral gray to do what those of us can’t—but they don’t need to glorify them in the process. Not everyone in law enforcement has the stomach or the psychological latitude to see red and act upon it, consequences be damned. And this fact isn’t solely for personal reasons either. Some simply don’t possess the job, clearance, or orders to even fathom such maneuvers possible. Kate and her partner Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya) aren’t naïve, though. They know spooks like Graver exist and run amok with the executive branch’s blessing, but it’s done on foreign soil. Watching them at home is something wholly different. Allowing themselves to willfully be complicit is unforgivable.
But this is their reality. Is it worse than what Kate deals with normally? We meet her as she and her team clears a house looking for hostages only to find a drywall graveyard of plastic-wrapped bodies. Minutes later an explosion arrives killing two and injuring more. The cartel is already using Phoenix as its backyard, so why not take the fight to them? This is what Graver and Alejandro are offering. This is why they need Kate’s implicit permission by simply being there as an interdepartmental liaison. No matter how hard she fights for justice, being there to potentially make a difference outweighs knowing what’s happening and being helpless to stop it. The FBI is losing this war and it’s now time to color outside the lines.
The filmmakers provide many great sequences in this vein with Kate and us in the dark as to the endgame. Not only does Graver tell her boss Jennings (Victor Garber) that they are initially picking up cartel lieutenant Manuel Diaz’s (Bernardo P. Saracino) brother Guillermo (Edgar Arreola) from El Paso, his answer to “What’s happening?” in Juarez is to smile and say “Watch and learn.” This is for us too—opening our eyes to the free reign our government allows certain agencies access to for results. So we enter hot zones in Mexico under SUV transport and Policía Federal escort, our heads on a swivel. The violent burst of gunfire and blood at the border proves another day at work while Kate explodes in fear, guilt, and shock.
We don’t know yet that we’re in the midst of another American-sanctioned coup. This isn’t about supplanting dictator for dictator in the political sector, though. This is about trying to go back to a time when there was one outfit in charge of the drug trade. The goal’s to prevent the in-fighting and turf wars—accept the drug problem drowning a fifth of the population and seek to reveal a way to lessen the violence around it. On paper it’s a brilliant idea and those with the security clearance to see it as a feasible option are on-board. But Kate isn’t at that level and she’s too strong to roll over and let them use her participation as a way to jeopardize the code she’s sworn to uphold.
The question then becomes whether her idealism will prevail. More than that: will it survive the heinous events we’re about to witness? Villeneuve is no stranger to putting dark material onscreen in a palatably mainstream way and Sicario‘s unfiltered aggression and crossing-the-line actions may go beyond those depicted with Prisoners. While that film about child abduction painted good people into a corner to watch emotions take over and cloud judgment, this one is even more depressing because Kate’s “good person” won’t bend or break. Her soul still loses anyway, though, because the wheels in motion render every outside attempt for order a futile fantasy. She’s no longer in a world where pointing her gun stops the bad guy in his tracks. He simply shoots first.
This jaded reality is a perfect playground to force the audience to ask how far they’d go. What would their conscience condone and what wouldn’t it when the outcome does make their borders safer? Blunt and Kaluuya become bright lights of optimism slowly fading as the darkness rolls in to consume them. Brolin and Del Toro excel as that storm, loud and stoic respectively in their desire to see Diaz and his boss Fausto Alarcon (Julio Cedillo) destroyed for military and personal gain. Kate’s innocence pushes her into horrible situations and her narrow escapes whittle away at her soul ever so slightly to open her eyes to Graver’s “world”. Her psychological prison is all we need to understand the stakes as she finds herself on an island apart.
Because her arc is so effective—and because Brolin and Del Toro’s memorable antiheroes excel at transforming vendettas into homeland security—the inclusion of a Mexican cop (Maximiliano Hernández‘s Silvio) and family proves unnecessary. I get the desire to show collateral damage on the other side of the border, but it’s something we intrinsically know before sitting down. Mexico isn’t wholly composed of hardened criminals; many are strong-armed into doing things they’d rather not just like many are here. To continuously go back to Silvio and his son is manipulative at best if he somehow ends up integral to the plot. But he doesn’t. He’s just another faceless pawn whose overt inclusion drives home a political talking point. Preaching is worse than manipulation and it’s impossible to ignore.
 Emily Blunt stars as ‘Kate Macer’ in SICARIO. Photo Credit: Richard Foreman Jr. SMPSP
 Benicio Del Toro stars as ‘Alejandro’ in SICARIO. Photo Credit: Richard Foreman Jr. SMPSP
 Josh Brolin stars as ‘Matt Graver’ in SICARIO. Photo Credit: Richard Foreman Jr. SMPSP