There have been many films about drugs, and about the war on drugs. Most of them deal, a la Scarface, with the “gritty” street realities of the trade, or with power struggles within and between various factions of organized crime. (Such films are really just a variation on the more traditional gangster film, with drugs sprinkled over the top as a way to provide viewers with a vicarious high). Fewer films, such as Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic, attempt to view the problem from a wider perspective and look at the structures that undergird the continual failure of this war, attempting to dramatize the failure of a systemic response to a systemic problem. Sicario, the new thriller from Denis Villeneuve, hews closer to this second model, but is a fresh hybrid. In some ways, it resembles an intragovernmental procedural of the Zero Dark Thirty school, with intrigues between and internecine battling among the FBI, DEA, CIA, etc. taking center stage. In other ways, though, it is a fairly straightforward revenge thriller, less Dirty Harry and more Death Wish (although we understand this only in the final quarter of the film, even if we’ve been feeling it all along). It is also an action film, and there are touches of the Western, the war film, and the bildungsroman, as we follow a neophyte officer from innocence to experience. What makes the film remarkable, though, is that it is all of a piece; the hybrid nature does not poke out, and the film does not seem a pastiche of various genres, but one sinuous, long, smoothly moving and tightly coiling snake. Unlike Traffic, which often jerks from one place, and tone, to another, and which also often becomes leaden and boring, Sicario is extremely easy to follow and consistently pleasurable to watch.
The film unfolds in three acts, with very little connective tissue in between (that is, just enough) and no flab or extraneous material. We begin at the scene of a purported kidnapping, which turns out to be a cartel-owned house in a Phoenix subdivision, the walls of which are stuffed full of dead bodies. At the scene of this crime, we are introduced to Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), our avatar in this world, as well as her friend and somewhat partner Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya) and her boss (Victor Garber). Kate works for the FBI, but as a liaison for kidnapping cases; she has no real experience within the world of drug dealing. After this introduction (which ends in a trauma I won’t reveal), Kate is debriefed by a room full of drug enforcement interests from various agencies. The most powerful man in the room is not her boss, but Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), the head of a task force dedicated to reducing cross-border drug violence. Matt is strange in ways that indicate he is a potential rogue presence: unlike the rest of those present, who are dressed in suits, Matt is very casually dressed (he wears flip-flops) and he takes a special interest in questioning Kate on her personal life and marital status. (We think he is hitting on her, but by the end of the movie, we understand he has a very different, and ice-cold, pretext for his questions). Kate is asked to volunteer for Matt’s task force, and after a little consideration, she does so. (Again, we spend much of the movie questioning why this seasoned force would want her on their team – it seems a Hollywood contrivance – only to have the reasoning made painfully clear in the final quarter of the film). Act two of the film involves the task force, with the aid of the mysterious Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), who seems unconnected to any official agency, retrieving a high level drug suspect from a jail on the Mexican side of the border and bringing him back to a military base on the U.S. side for questioning. Act three of the film takes up the search for a drug tunnel gleaned from information provided by said suspect’s interrogation. The drug tunnel operation is basically a ruse, however, to lure one of the cartel’s high level enforcers into contacting the big boss, revealing his location to the task force. The last part of the film deals with the aftermath of the tunnel raid, and the ultimate goal of everything that has occurred is revealed, both to Kate and to us.
There are many things this film does exceptionally well. First and foremost, it is structured in a very straightforward way, and with very little dialogue, but still manages to convey all of the intricacies and gray zones of the drug war, and of working across international borders and among multiple agencies, without ever belaboring it, getting bogged down in detail, or resorting to clichés (characters bemoaning inefficiencies, overly cynical explanations to newbies, etc). Fundamentally, the film is a thriller, and the structure and pacing pulls us through, tightening the ropes as it goes (in a way very reminiscent of Michael Mann’s best work). Each of the film’s acts centers on an action sequence – in act two it is the attempted assassination of the drug suspect before he can be brought onto U.S. soil, and in act three it is the infiltration of the drug tunnel. What makes the film work so well is not just the structure, but every other factor as well. First, there is the cinematography (courtesy of the always excellent Roger Deakins). It is both gritty and beautiful, and makes amazing use of available light – the darks (and there are many of them) are truly dark, night sequences are lucid yet atmospheric, and the sunsets of the southwest have rarely been more sensuously shot. At the same time, this beauty is grounded in a thoroughgoing realism, which is perhaps most on display during the trip into Ciudad Juarez to pick up the drug suspect. (The difference between Texas and Mexico is not night and day, but it is stark, grim, and the entire sequence seems to have been filmed on location at the border). A good part of the realism, and much of the lucidity of the staging, comes from the use of “technological” points of view. For instance (and especially in the unfolding of act two), we have many shots from the viewpoint of a drone; that is, a camera floating far above the action, but close enough to make clear the extent of the terrain being traveled into and through, and the exact location of all parties we need to care about. Unlike other films that have utilized such footage, Sicario does not spell it out as “drone footage” – we do not see HUD or targeting artifacts to betray to us “where” this footage comes from. In this sense, it is not jarring, and could simply be an aesthetic choice – the drone lies latent, behind this footage, unannounced. Villeneuve also makes use of infrared/night goggle footage and thermal imaging during the tunnel raid, and this footage is, while obviously tied to the equipment worn by the characters, equally seamless in its insertion. I would even dare to say it might be the first use of such footage that I would call lovely, and every use is purposeful in increasing the tension and putting us, as viewers, in the same zone of imperfect information as the characters. The music is subtle, spare, and works on us slowly, in pace with the increasing tension. The acting, like the rest of the film, is controlled and (unlike in some of Michael Mann’s work) never histrionic. (Indeed, Benicio Del Toro, who carries the last quarter of the film, has rarely been better). I suppose the film, like many actioners or thrillers, doesn’t have much of a politics beyond a weary, cynical resignation, but that does not bother me in the slightest, as it also keeps the script taut and without any unnecessary moralizing (we can see how failed things are, without needing to be told). Like Whiplash of last year, Sicario is a film that could easily appeal to a mass audience, but which also has much to offer lovers of serious film. I have no pithy or solemn words on which to end, except to recommend the film to one and (almost) all.