It is fitting that on October 14, 1982, President Ronald Reagan declared his administration’s intent to carry out a “war on drugs,” replete with sweeping legislation, the formation of task forces and social policy aimed at cutting off the flow of narcotics into America. Nearly 33 years later, director Denis Villeneuve depicts the troubling reality of this effort in his film “Sicario.” Today it is a pocket war with powerful Mexican drug cartels in which the stakes have become so ambiguous success looks a lot like a dark moral quagmire.
FBI Agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is the tip of the spear in this conflict, kicking down doors of houses controlled by the shadowy cartel lord, Manuel Diaz. These raids represent attrition for Macer– the houses walls are lined with the rotting, dismembered bodies of kidnapping victims and the property is rigged with deadly booby traps, but there is little to be done to prohibit their existence in the first place. After a particularly intense raid in the film’s opening passages, Macer is approached by Matt Graver, (Josh Brolin) an ambiguous government agent who is seeking the formation of an ‘inter-agency task force,’ that will take the conflict against Diaz’s cartel to a new level. Graver is easy breezey, a smiling and glib devil clad in khaki and vacation-dad sandals with an unrevealed agenda. He is shadowed by the glowering Alejandro, (Benicio del Toro) who seems to work for no one in particular and filled to the brim with untapped violence. Del Toro steals the show more often than not– never has a character in cinema seemed so menacing, carrying an office cooler jug of water while strolling into a torture session.
“Sicario” is at its best when Villeneuve is crafting tension and mood. Partnering with legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, they track over the crenellated landscape of the borderlands like it is the surface of a bizarre and hostile alien world. The newly formed team plans to extract Diaz’s cousin from Juarez, Mexico, a place Villeneuve renders as a horrifying third world favela– dismembered bodies hang from the overpasses and tattooed gangsters slump in every shadowy corner. The stakes are so expertly raised, the droning score ratcheting up the stress that when the gunfire finally spurts off it is a pure relief.
The minor problems with “Sicario” lie between these delightful stress-filled sequences. The overall tone is somewhat antiseptic and without much levity, which is readily apparent when the plot returns to a simmer. Blunt plays Macer appropriately gob smacked by the proceedings, but remains 99 percent an audience cipher and one percent a fully realized character. She is perpetually kept at arm’s length from Graver’s full plan, but seems incapable of asking the right questions, if any at all. She queries Alejandro about the workings of the cartel they are squaring off against,
“You’re asking me how a watch works.” Alejandro rumbles elliptically. “For now, let’s keep an eye on the time.”
She is unsatisfied, but asks no further questions.
Meanwhile, narrative emotional groundwork is laid with brief vignettes of the family life of Silvio (Maximiliano Hernández), a Juarez police officer whose entire day seems to consist of waking up with a hangover and eating eggs. The effort is noble to generating some sympathy in the drug conflict, but the moments are too sparse and fleeting to provide the film with any extra heft.
In his previously much lauded works “Enemy”(2013) and “Prisoners,” Villeneuve has threaded avant-garde narratives with a moral through-line that proposes dark questions about the human condition. These questions are expertly tethered to themes with a flourish of mystery and narrative twist. The same is attempted with “Sicario” but the effort is incomplete, falling victim to a pop-culture savvy audience and a thin mystery. Graver and Alejandro’s intentions are readily apparent, and audiences of the current Netflix series “Narcos” will be miles ahead of the film’s not-so-mysterious MacGuffin word, ‘Medellin.’
Today, America’s ill executed “war on drugs” carries on, and “Sicario” reflects that reality by depicting the understated horror a sprawling bureaucracy facilitates. It’s a grim and stressful affair, short on character, but long on mood and circumstance. Much like the real life conflict, drawing a summation of these proceedings is neither tidy nor easy, but remains altogether fascinating.
Running time: 121 minutes
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