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Sicario

Sicario

She looks like she could shoot you unless you give her a cookie.
For your own safety, just give her a cookie

dir: Denis Villeneuve

2015

Well that was… harrowing.

If you haven’t already seen it, and don’t know what it means, the word ‘sicario’ basically means ‘assassin’, as in, someone who kills people for money.

I can’t claim any particular knowledge of Spanish that let me know this previously, but I did already know the term, mostly because of a weird Colombian film by Barbet Schroeder from ages ago called Our Lady of Assassins, or, as I knew it when I saw it, La Virgen de los Sicarios.

Why do I recall something like this from 15 years ago? Well, I had the movie poster on my wall. Back then when paper still existed, you’d pick up all the free posters from places like Cinema Nova that you could because they provided cheap and slickly well produced camouflage, perfect for hiding the damaged walls in rental properties from nosy property managers.

It’s something I’ve never forgotten, not because it was a good film, but because how could I forget such a concept? Teenage assassins wearing protective amulets of the Virgin Mary, praying to her to help them in their assassinations? It’s beyond absurd, it’s child-like and monstrous at the same time. Imagine the cognitive dissonance caused by trying to reconcile the concept that Jesus’s mother wants you to shoot some guy in the face, and will protect you until you do so.

So the word sticks out pretty strongly to me. This flick has nothing to do with the other one, but it’s a pretty harsh experience all the same, as you might expect.

This flick, other than its content, is a harrowing experience, mostly because of the soundtrack. There is this thumping percussion which, when used, which is most of the time, made me feel like I was having a heart attack, or that I was at least on the verge of one. It matches the subject matter, which is a deeply cynical take on the States’ current War on Drugs, which is nothing like the previous one, which was all cuddles and snuggles and “please won’t you stop sending cocaine into the States, pretty please?”

In a lot of ways this flick could almost be used by one of the Republican presidential hopefuls as a campaign ad for why they should be president. Because they’ll be the ones that stop those evil illegals from jumping the border. Because they’ll be the one that will take on those evil Mexican drug lords and win.

Because… because, yeah, saying it makes it true.

There is no doubt that Mexico has a lot of issues when it comes to law and order. The money made by the cartels gives them power. With great power comes great responsibility, and what better way to exercise that power than killing so many people in such horribly gruesome ways that the morgues themselves can’t keep up? Even watching this I was telling myself “surely things aren’t this bad?”, even knowing that 60,000 people have been butchered by these maniacs over the last 10 years. It doesn’t matter whether they’re Sinaloa, Gulf, Los Zetas or Juarez cartels, they’re all scum, and they’re rendering large swathes of the country a living hell, or pretty much like Syria with tequila and better food.

The question isn’t “how much of this is credible, or is this really going on”? The question, for those of us not living in Mexico, or the States, is how comfortable we are with what a vital, potent, engorged country like the States has to do in order to curtail the reach of the cartels. It’s one thing when people are being strung up and mutilated in Ciudad Juarez, or when a busload of teachers are brutally murdered and dumped in a shallow mass grave (as ordered by a goddamn mayor). It’s another kettle of fish entirely when it happens in the Land of the Free.

So when 45 or so mutilated bodies are found in the walls of a building in Arizona, and there are ties to one of the Mexican cartels, a smiling, charming CIA dude (Josh Brolin), tries to enlist the services of a FBI agent with tactical field experience (Emily Blunt) in order to get more War into the War on Drugs. Blunt’s character, whatever her name is, has one function throughout the whole film: to look bewildered and disbelieving at the shit that goes on around her. She’s less a participant in this film than she is a reluctant and horrified passenger.

There’s some need for some kind of interagency task force type-thingie, where CIA and Defense contractors, and Delta Force special ops dudes for some reason need a young, willowy FBI lady to come along and see what’s what as they collaborate. It’s explained later on, but initially we’re as confused as she is. This stuff they’re doing doesn’t seem like law enforcement: it’s full on military actions and hardcore battles on foreign land, and sometimes not. None of it even vaguely smells like being legal.

But who are you to quibble? Aren’t these cartels run by monsters, and isn’t the government so riddled with corruption that the whole country is considered a failed state? Isn’t this the only way to win a war: by being prepared to do more than the other side?

And then there’s the mysterious Alejandro (Benicio del Toro), who doesn’t even have the decency to introduce himself or answer questions in useful ways. Of all the enigmatic characters del Toro has played over the years (played very well, to be fair), this is by far the quietest and the nastiest. He’s softly spoken, but he is, by far, one of the nastiest pieces of work I’ve seen in a while.

Though the story might sound conventional, in that it sounds like a generic crime drama, it really isn’t. It’s structured pretty differently compared to the stuff it sounds like. We might think, like I did, that Kate is the main character: that events and happenings are happening for her benefit, that she has a role to play in the events, but really, for about three-quarters of it she’s mostly observing what’s happening (in between surviving attempts on her life), she’s incredulous about what’s happening, and then the film acknowledges that it’s really not about her anyway.

I have to say, despite the lengths they go to make this all look plausible and ripped from the headlines, the further the flick goes on, the less believable it becomes. But that lack of plausibility doesn’t make it any less powerful. It leads up to a brutal ending for all concerned, and it certainly indicates that cynicism, as well as the law of “the most determined psychopath with the best technology at their disposal” wins the day, at the loss of our souls, I guess.

What worth is there in winning a war but losing your soul? This is, after all, a war film, with Kate in the role of the young innocent who doesn’t yet realise that War is Hell and makes people do awful, extraordinary things for their country or for revenge or both. If it wasn’t clear that this was a war film early on, there is an incredibly beautiful evening sky shot (courtesy of the amazing cinematography of Roger Deakins) with, for lack of a better term, a bunch of ‘soldiers’ silhouetted by the darkening sky. It’s a tremendous shot, but I suspect it’s being used for ominous purposes.

Since that kind of shot is a cliché of American war movies, usually WWII ones (even Spielberg couldn’t resist such a shot for Saving Private Ryan), and since the image is held for so long (prior to a disturbing and tense fire fight in some cartel tunnels), you have to wonder what the film is saying about the War on Drugs, or The Battle for America’s Soul, just to make it more head-thumpingly obvious.

I don’t know. Denis Villeneuve has made some murky, complex and disturbing flicks thus far, ones that don’t always have comfortable explanations or that sit pleasantly with the viewer afterwards. I did find this flick a bit disturbing, but also confusing in terms of its moral, if any. But I also find it somewhat unsatisfying.

Kate doesn’t really get to make the moral (or immoral) choices such a story would seem to demand. She spends the film being progressively marginalised by the other characters as it goes on, until the film just flat out decides it doesn’t need her anymore, and we realise that the main character was really Alejandro, who gets the most powerful scenes at the end of the flick. You could argue that Kate makes (or doesn’t make) a big decision at film’s end, one that either tracks with her values and her ethics, or that it shouldn’t have, but really she’s not given a choice.

Her performance, like all of the performances in the flick, is a strong one, but I would perhaps have preferred if she’d been given more to do than looking shocked and disillusioned as time rolls on. And in the end, she’s got nothing, but she also doesn’t even know/realise the worst of it.

Del Toro is amazing, menacing and reassuring, calm and utterly monstrous, playing the least believable character he’s ever played, and that includes that weird Collector alien guy he plays in the Marvel movies. Maybe it’s not that the character is unbelievable, but that I find it a little bit hard to believe the CIA, Homeland Security, even the most rightwing nutjob government official you could ever imagine would cultivate and give unlimited freedom to someone far worse than all the cartels combined.

If the film’s point is that there are no real good guys or bad guys in any war (on Drugs or otherwise), just worse guys and the worst, well, it’s not exactly the uplifting moral of a story you’ll be telling the kids as you tuck them in to bed at night.

The film has immaculate cinematography, solid performances, a grim premise, some gallows humour, and a pitch black core of cynicism about just how well paved that road to hell is with good intentions. Also, some very intense action sequences (the sequence on the Bridge of the Americas especially) and that pulverising soundtrack making sure you never relax for too long.

7 times in which it’s always personal, no matter what they say, out of 10

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“You're asking me how a watch works. For now we'll just keep an eye on the time.” – wait, what the hell? - Sicario

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