RECAP: Sicario

Sicario (2015): Denis Villeneuve

What’s more dangerous, more convoluted than policing the drug trade? That question is raised by the 2015 drug update Sicario. What does “sicario” mean? According to the intro, it’s what the Jews called people who actively opposed Roman leaders. In Mexico, a sicario is a hitman.

Acclaimed cinematographer Roger Deakins picked up his 13th overall and fourth consecutive Oscar nomination, all of them losses. The visuals were terrific, but I found Johann Johannsson’s Oscar-nominated score the movie’s real star.

Deakins and Josh Brolin both worked on another movie focusing on the drug war around El Paso, 2008’s Best Picture winner No Country for Old Men.

ONE SENTENCE PLOT SUMMARY: The US wages secret war against the Mexican drug cartels. 

Hero (1/10)

Lithe and hard-jawed, Emily Blunt plays FBI agent Kate Macer, kicking doors since day one. Blunt’s American accent is flawless, which is very important for her character’s role.

We first meet Macer on her way to a drug bust in the desert town of Chandler, Arizona, a suburb of Phoenix. Macer appears to be the only woman on the mission, which comprises FBI agents and local SWAT members. Macer holds this distinction throughout the film, a fact never remarked upon by any character. More on this later.

During the raid in the suburban home she walks into a room and is immediately shot at. Macer rolls to the ground as she fires multiple rounds into the perp that shot at her. She’s a fine shot, and recovers quickly from being shot at. Macer is an old pro at these raids. That, or she never gets nervous.

A bomb blows at the drug house, killing two members of her team. She seeks vengeance. She’s asked to volunteer for a special unit to “dramatically overreact” to the attack. Macer agrees.

The rest of the movie shows Macer in scene after scene observing, questioning, and fouling the situation. When Macer arrives in Texas, she sits in on a mission briefing. Many of the shots are from her perspective, as if the camera was sitting in her seat and turning to take in the setting.

Macer learns that task force plans to go into Mexico and transport a cartel leader back to the US. Macer’s had enough of shadows. She yells at the CIA spook that brought her along, Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), “I just want to know what I’m getting into.”

A fair question, one never fully answered. Macer helps fetch the cartel leader, searches for a drug tunnel beneath the national borders, and investigates drug deposits in US banks–nothing makes sense to her, not the Who, the How, or the Why.

Macer is less a character and more an avatar for the American public. When Macer’s boss asks her what she wants, she answers, “I want to follow some semblance of procedure.” She’s an American in the dark about the drug wars, and she wants to give it order, to understand.

That’s what America wants. Macer is the vehicle by which we, the public, can begin to understand how bad it is out there, how nasty the drug wars are in Mexico and, increasingly, the US.

Macer finds herself often in dangerous positions, and she always seems to make a well meaning mistake. She seduces a man sent to interrogate her. She follows the wrong guy in the drug tunnel. She points her gun where she isn’t supposed to. She tires to do the “right” thing, but that never works. Are we, Americans, doing the “right” thing, but actually making the situation worse?

“Macer,” a word derived from old Scotland, means one who keeps order at court. That’s what Blunt’s Macer attempts, but fails to do. She’s a woman with a lot of problems in her personal life. She’s divorced, wears one t-shirt a week, and her eyebrows look like caterpillars. The latter assessment comes from her friend.

Really, Macer’s a dupe, or a dope, or both. In the drug tunnel she bangs her helmet on an exposed beam. She’s constantly smoking or bleeding or being attacked. Early in the film, sitting outside the conference room, waiting to be called in, she tells her partner multiple times that she has no idea what’s going on. That’s the theme of the movie for Macer.

Villain (6/10)

The true villain behind Sicario is America’s insatiable need to get high. That’s the reason Graver gives for using black ops to wage a secret war against the cartels on both sides of the US-Mexico border.

That desire fuels the cartels. it creates Alarcons and Medellins and Escobars and El Chapos. For purposes of this writing, I will discuss Alejandro in this section.

Benicio Del Toro plays Alejandro, a former prosecutor on the CIA-led black ops team by way of Colombia. His character is wrapped in mystery and slowly unwrapped as the film progresses. Sicario is as much the story of his revenge as anything else.

Alejandro watched his family’s murders, and since then he will work “for anyone who will point him toward the people who made him.” In this movie that’s Graver and the CIA. Also Macer.

Del Toro plays the assassin with grave determination. The character has waited years for this mission, years to avenge his family, so he won’t have anything ruining it. He’s the guy who tortures Guillermo, Diaz’s brother, to learn where to find the tunnel running beneath the borders.

And my God, is he a great shot. Not a shot wasted with this guy. He kills at least a dozen people, and never needs a second slug to kill a man, woman, or child. He is absolutely ruthless, a man reduced to one mission, one purpose–revenge.

Despite years of planning, he finds a soft spot for Macer. The FBI agent reminds Alejandro of his murdered daughter. Perhaps that’s why he follows her and protects her from the corrupt Phoenix cop that nearly chokes her to death. Of course, he does threaten to kill her later, so the resemblance only runs so deep.

Del Toro plays Alejandro mysteriously. His interrogation methods mostly constitute extreme invasions of personal space. He puts his crotch right in Guillermo’s face. Later, when roughing up the corrupt Phoenix cop who almost kills Macer, he gives him a wet willy. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a wet willy in a movie.

Action/Effects (4/10)

Calling Sicario an action movie might be a stretch. The film is more suspenseful than active, more mysterious than explosive. But it’s worth visiting anyway.

The movie’s most suspenseful scene occurs in Mexico, when Macer and the well-armed men she rides with cross the American border into Mexico. Their mission is to extract a prisoner held in a warehouse.

The man is Guillermo Diaz, whose brother Manuel is the highest-ranking member of the Sonora cartel working in the US. Guillermo, as far as we know, knows things about the cartel and the location of its boss.

The movie shows the Delta team, Texas Rangers, cops, Macer, Alejandro, and everyone else boarding the vehicles that will drive into Mexico. They drive into Mexico. The entrance is easy. We learned from the briefing that if the cartel attempts to rescue their precious Guillermo, they will likely do it on the return to America.

Despite knowing that, the entire sequence is tinged with unease. Johann Johannsson’s fantastic score of ceaseless bass lines added much to that unease. The US convoy enters Mexico and is immediately escorted by dozens of Federal Police vehicles, many of which sport huge belt-fed machine guns.

The camera shoots from interesting locations. The backs of the Mexican trucks are popular points, as if we are looking through the eyes of the gunners. We also see a shot from a local park, where dozens of locals don’t even notice the operation.

The convoy passes four bodies, heads and arms missing, hanging from a bridge. “It’s brilliant what they do,” says one of the men, possibly CIA, in Macer’s truck. The cartels make the locals think they must have done something to deserve mutilation and death. He’s enjoying this mission a little too much.

The entire route from the border to the warehouse is clear for the convoy. The local and federal police have cordoned off whole swathes of asphalt. The Americans arrive unscathed to get the prisoner. Alejandro, remaining in the truck, beside Macer, tells her not to fear, reiterating that if the cartel makes a move, it will be on the bridge.

The characters show no fear up to this point. They might as well be getting groceries. But the music and the silence keeps the audience enthralled. Macer, who doesn’t speak a single word in Mexico, watches intently. Blunt uses her face to evoke grim determination overriding confusion and fear. Watch her jaw clench as a truck bangs onto a curb.

Trouble pops up after they’ve taken Guillermo. A “spotter vehicle” rides along a parallel street, to track their progress. It disappears just as suddenly. Soon, the convoy reaches the logjam on the Bridge of the Americas. Multiple lanes of clogged traffic trying to enter the US block progress. Everyone expected this.

Alejandro watches the cars in other lanes. He trains a rifle on one car full of young males. The radio crackles with the sound of an unknown voice asking what the rules of engagement are. They can only engage if engaged upon.

After another vehicle is spotted, and a gun barrel, almost all the troops get out of the car. Macer finally speaks up, asking them to wait. They don’t.

The men approach both cars. One guy, as tattooed as he is high, steps out, looks menacing, and raises his gun. The Americans kill all eight gunmen in the two cars. Macer spots a uniformed man in the mirror and ducks to avoid his shot. She blasts him and screams, “FUCK.”

That’s the scene. Build build build, and WHAM it all crashes. The other action scenes in Sicario mimic this style of lead up to a firecracker blowing. You realize that the moment of action was a solid piece of entertainment, but the buildup subtracted from its power.

Sidekicks (2/8)

The lone person working on Macer’s side is former Indianapolis wide receiver Reggie Wayne (Daniel Kaluuya). Wayne is Macer’s partner in the FBI, and he’s also a graduate from UNC law school. Go Tar Heels!

Graver, when picking his patsy, er, teammate, discounts Wayne. He’s too smart. And he shows that he won’t back down from Graver and his brethren. Wayne meets Macer after the Mexico op and asks her how El Paso went. When she tells him they crossed the border, he starts asking questions, which Macer never does.

He demands Graver tell him what’s going on. He refuses to be left in the dark about what his partner is doing. Graver obliges, telling Wayne and Macer that they are after the big fish, Fausto Alarcon, el jefe of the Sonora cartel. Ask and ye shall understand.

Wayne shoehorns his way onto the black ops team, accompanying them, in the climactic gun battle, into the tunnel running beneath the border. He shows bravado, especially when Macer emerges from the tunnel to punch Graver, and, no questions asked, goes after the first guy he can. It nearly gets him killed.

Henchmen (6/8)

If Alejandro is the movie’s villain, then “DOD adviser” Matt Graver is his backup. Josh Brolin chews gum in nearly all his scenes, and if he’s not doing that he laughs. The drug war is only a game to him.

When his men kill eight gunmen between the national borders, all we see of him is his smirk as he looks down the hooded Guillermo. He whistles while perusing the security footage at the Phoenix bank where Diaz’s people make daily deposits.

When Macer endangers herself by entering the bank, He tells her not to. She doesn’t listen, and he says, “There you go, she’s going in the bank.” It’s all a big joke that she’s now marked by the most dangerous cartel in the Western Hemisphere.

Graver hides all his activities in half-truths. He says he’s a DOD adviser. Which is probably true, some of the time. When Macer or Wayne asks questions he won’t answer, he smiles and deflects.

Graver stirs the pot, causing criminals to overreact. That is his purpose. He wants the tunnel raid to be the “mother of all diversions” and a “weapons free” (shoot at anything) environment. When Graver’s team invades the tunnel, we never see the enemy. It’s as if they are shooting at shadows and ghosts. Graver never stops chewing that gum.

Brolin’s easy going acting adds playfulness to a dour cast of characters. Brolin might be the one guy who had fun on the set.

Stunts (1/6)

They don’t do a lot of stunt work in Sicario. Macer fights with the corrupt cop who tries to kill her. This fight was interesting in that the cop uses his strength advantage to pin her beneath him. He doesn’t punch her, in fact he seems loathe to punch her. He wraps his arms around her and tries to get her to stop attacking him, stop shooting at him.

The cartels aren’t going to fight with fists and knives. Long-barreled guns are the best tools for fighting the drug war in the 21st century.

Climax (5/6)

Macer, inside a tunnel running beneath the US-Mexico border, her rifle shot from her, draws her service weapon and follows Alejandro through the tunnel. She finds him holding hostage a corrupt, drug running cop. Alejandro immediately shoots her in the kevlar vest and tells her to never again point a gun at him.

Alejandro, now revealed as Medellin, a member of a Colombian cartel, holds the cop at gun point and forces him to follow Diaz. He radios the satellite/drone operators following Diaz as the latter drives to meet his boss, Alarcon. What’s clear is that Alejandro is not going rogue, but that kidnapping the cop was part of the CIA’s plan.

The pair find Diaz and pull him over. This scene was full of tension. Alejandro slowly whispers a script to the sweating cop, who barks the words through his loudspeaker. The cop shows some spunky improvisation in forcing Diaz from his black Mercedes. Alejandro uses the distraction to kill the cop and shoot Diaz in the leg.

Now he’s in Diaz’s car as the latter drives to his boss. Once the car is in the compound, Alejandro kills Diaz with a throat slice, as well as four guards. He enters the the house, as we see from the point of view of the overhead thermal camera. The assassin shoots another guard before spotting la familia Alarcon eating dinner al fresco.

Alejandro takes a seat. He begs the children to eat their dinners. The kids tap their forks on the plate the way kids do when they only pretend to eat. Alejandro, Medellin, speaks to Alarcon.

The cartel leader knows who Alejandro is. He murdered, or had murdered, his wife and daughter, the former by beheading and the latter by throwing her into a vat of acid. Brutal tactics these cartel people use. “Who do you think we learned it from?” asks Alarcon. America. Us.

Alejandro shoots the two children and the sobbing mother. We only see him turn the gun and pull the trigger. Then the scene cuts to their bloody bodies. Alarcon is shocked into silence.

Alejandro, his revenge nearly complete, orders the cartel boss to eat his dinner. The emotional hammer is coming down. Alejandro stands and delivers two slugs into Fausto Alarcon, murdering the most powerful drug leader since Pablo Escobar.

Alejandro, Medellin, kills 10 people once he enters Mexico. It’s unclear how he escapes, but he certainly does, because we see him again in Macer’s apartment, where he nearly kills the protagonist.

Jokes (0/4)

Graver is a CIA agent, or DOD adviser, so coll that he wears flip-flops to meetings with the FBI.

One unintentionally funny moment occurs when Alejandro address his arch-nemisis. He says something in Spanish that the subtitles translated as “bon appetit.” So the English translation of the Spanish phrase is French words.

Setting (4/4)

Juarez is the focal point of the film and the setting of the film’s most intense sequence. A convoy of five black Suburbans drives from El Paso to Juarez, murder capital of the world. It is not until the convoy passes four mangled bodies hanging from a bridge that Alejandro tells Macer, “Welcome to Juarez.”

The city is derelict, but still full of life. Folks line the streets to watch the convoy ride through the city, followed often by Mexican federal police. They gather around the hanging bodies. They don’t fear the cartel and take little notice of the convoy, at least not that day.

One shot shows locals playing handball as the US convoy rolls through town. Others gather for a picnic. For citizens of Juarez, black ops and police sirens are just another day.

A star of Sicario is the landscape. Several times throughout we are shown the expanse of the desert from above. Always playing over these shots is the dreadful score of Johan Johannson, telling us that this desert is dangerous and imposing, not pretty and alluring.

One gorgeous scene shows the Delta Force squad silhouetted in in black as the team members walk toward the fading light. The sky is a perfect orange, purple, and black combination, and the only thing present in the shot besides the gunmen. These views are courtesy of legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins.

Commentary (2/2)

Frustrated, Macer asks Graver what she’s doing on his mission. The CIA needs a domestic unit attachment to operate inside US borders, Graver tells her smilingly. Someone had to volunteer for the mission, and the FBI asked her. Graver feeds her some bogus reason about tactical knowhow, but it ain’t true.

Sicario has one statement to make: regular folks do not, and cannot, understand drug trafficking. Graver explains to Macer, the American public’s proxy, that until someone can figure out how get 20% of the public to stop injecting and snorting and smoking the shit that drug dealers pedal, people like Graver and Alejandro will have to exist.

The CIA wants to return to a time of one cartel, one group to control in the drug market. During its most violent period at the dawn of this decade, Juarez had one of the highest murder rates in the world. So the CIA, in the movie, decided to stir the pot.

Americans have no idea what the drug war is like. Mexicans are watching their townsfolk hang from bridges while Yanks watch TV.

Offensiveness (0/-2)

Macer is the only major female character and the lone lady doing any law enforcement. No character ever mentions this, and I think that’s a wise choice on the part of the screenwriters. Sicario is a story about drugs and the law and the US and Mexico. It’s not meant to be a women’s empowerment story.

That Macer is working with Delta Force guys and CIA spooks and no one questions her place is a significant achievement. Looking at Emily Blunt, you would never suspect her of being any kind of physical force. That she pulls it off testifies to Blunt’s acting skill.

Others

  • The Mexican drug mule cop literally drives into a storm on the night he’s captured and killed.
  • Great shot: a Delta member enters the drug tunnel and draws his knife. The knife is framed in front of a deep blue sky.
  • Having watched Alias, it’s hard to trust Victor Garber doesn’t have ulterior motives.
  • (2) Tremendous score. Dreadful in the actual sense of the word.
  • (1) Blunt wasn’t given a great character, but she made the most of it with subtle facial acting.

Summary (34/68): 50%

What upsets Kate Macer, FBI agent, the most about the events of Sicario is their legality. She doesn’t understand why there’s a war or why the CIA would just kill people.

The US government, officials who are elected, not appointed, seeks to control the drug trade. They can’t stop it, so they choose to reduce to one the number of cartels fueling American addictions.

Somehow the CIA’s found an assassin able to rule the drug trade (perhaps) and kill the guy running things in Mexico. One cartel is the best the can hope for.