‘I’ ON CULTURE
Movies focusing on the war against drugs tend to be uncompromising blasts of good guy cops against evil drug lords, but Dennis Villeneuve’s excellent new film Sicario manages to demonstrate the moral dilemmas faced by at least some people on both sides. It is very tough and very violent. Actually very, very violent, so be warned. The title is the Mexican slang word for hitman.
An FBI hostage group, led by Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) and her sidekick Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya), following all accepted procedures, takes over a house in the middle of Arizona where a group of gangsters has holed up. They discover, instead of live hostages, 47 dead bodies — victims of the drug gangs. Two of the FBI agents are killed by a booby trap, and Macer is ready for some vengeance.
What she is not prepared for is a transfer to what is vaguely called an “interagency group” tasked to create real problems for the drug lords. The new people she works with, led by almost too cool “consultant” Matt (Josh Brolin), are special forces types. Included is another consultant, Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), whose purpose seems vague at the start. Macer soon learns that her new role is essentially to provide legal cover for groups like the CIA who are not allowed to function inside the country.
She watches in horror, then participates, in a bloodbath at the American border at El Paso, an exceptionally taut bit of action. She gets more involved, going as far as joining a mission aimed at breaking up drug traffic at a major tunnel formerly used for smuggling people. She discovers, by wandering into the wrong sub-tunnel, that Alejandro has another, far more chilling, mission. There is a small subplot focusing on a Mexican policeman who attempts to humanize some of the folks who have little choice when dealing with the cartels.
The film pulls no punches. While the cartel violence is shown to be horrendous, it is clear that the American fighters have few scruples. Alejandro is an expert torturer. We learn quickly that he is not what Macer had been told he was. The body count is enormous. But the film winds up, even with all the excitement, raising the question of whether this country’s actions are as legal and proper as they should be.
The cast is excellent. Blunt is really good as the torn FBI agent. Villeneuve spends a lot of time focusing on her face as she learns the reality of what turns out to be a real war. Discovering that she is constantly being used by the real players in the fight, used as bait, threatened directly, she is the center of the emotional action. However, in a slightly smaller role, Del Toro takes over much of the film. We see him at first as mysterious, then incredibly deadly, then brutal. We begin to feel sorry for him when we learn his motivations, and his character continues to develop through the film. I can see an Oscar nomination for Supporting Actor in his future.
Brolin is good as the laid-back leader who tries to supply charm even as he lies about his actions. I liked Kaluuya a real lot. More than a sidekick, his Reggie is a moral compass for Blunt’s Macer, even if he nags a bit like her mother.
Taylor Sheridan wrote a tight, action-packed screenplay that does pose some real questions about appropriate ways of fighting drugs. Posing tough questions makes the audience think about moral issues even while being entertained by the really excellent action that Villeneuve presents. A few of the action scenes are incredibly vivid, and the final one is actually painful.
I do not often give high marks to movies like this. Too often, filmmakers fall into stereotypes and make things like the drug war a simple matter of good vs. bad. Villeneuve and Sheridan force us to look deeper, and for that we owe them.
If you like action movies at all, this one is for you. Villeneuve is set to do the new version of Blade Runner, one of the greatest sci-fi films of all time. I will no longer worry about whether it is in good hands.
See the movie, although be warned of the extreme violence.