An Action Film That's Also Intelligent? 'Sicario' Proves Such Things Exist

Putting the art into the cartel, director Denis Villeneuve’s film is a gripping, smart action thriller that reflects the moral ambiguity of the American war on drugs and features a trio of powerful performances.

Uri Klein
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Emily Blunt as FBI agent Kate Macer in 'Sicario.' Increasingly lost within moral uncertainty.
Emily Blunt as FBI agent Kate Macer in 'Sicario.' Increasingly lost within moral uncertainty.Credit: AP
Uri Klein

Directed by Denis Villeneuve; written by Taylor Sheridan; with Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, Benicio Del Toro, Victor Garber, Jon Bernthal

French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve’s “Sicario” made its debut in competition at the Cannes Film Festival in May. This seemed surprising at first glance: After all, “Sicario” is an action movie, not the kind of film that usually vies for the Palme d’Or. (Indeed, even though it received excellent reviews after its premiere, it didn’t receive a single prize at the festival.)

However, it only takes a few minutes of watching to realize that “Sicario” is not your average law-enforcement thriller, even if it does deal with the American hunt for drug dealers in Mexico. Villeneuve was previously responsible for “Prisoners” (2013), one of the most complex, skillfully made thrillers of recent years. And here, from start to finish, his latest thriller seems to be holding its breath and forcing us, the audience, to do likewise. There are many action scenes, some of them quite drawn-out and violent, but what truly gives “Sicario” its powerful grip on the audience is the moral ambiguity pervading its reality, which is at once attractive and repugnant.

A screen caption early on explains that “sicario” is the drug cartels’ term for a hired assassin, and that the word comes from the Sicarii (literally, “dagger men” – the violent Jewish splinter group that rebelled against the Romans during the Second Temple era). The connection between the drug cartels and Jewish history is surprising enough; moreover, the movie gradually makes us wonder whether the term applies only to the drug dealers or rather, given the reality before us, to everyone involved – criminals and law enforcers alike.

Villeneuve and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan – an actor whose work on the script, his first, suggests considerable talent – make a woman the movie’s moral compass: Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is an FBI agent who takes part in a raid on a house that turns out to contain many plastic-wrapped corpses; she even kills one of the bad guys in the ensuing fight. As a result, she’s asked to join a special task force unit that will cross the border into Mexico, in order to capture the head of the Diaz crime family that owns the house.

Moral and ideological fog

To its credit, “Sicario” doesn’t make a big fuss over the fact that Kate is the first woman to take part in an operation of this kind. The men around her, especially group leader Matt (Josh Brolin), don’t always know how to respond to having a woman in their midst. But when the issue arises, the movie handles it smartly. For example, early on Matt holds back information from Kate: he seems to want to show her that nothing she encounters in the course of the operation will be what she imagines. But he also seems to enjoy dragging the serious, resolute FBI officer into the moral and ideological fog she is about to encounter.

Initially, Kate has an idea what the goal of the operation is. But as things progress, she knows less and less, because in the world in which she is now moving, knowledge and truth mean very little. From early on we’re introduced to the physical landscape, which is given a symbolic meaning that it will retain throughout (cinematographer Roger Deakins does an exceptional job, as always; the palette of the entire movie seems as faded as the moral boundaries within it). The members of the task force cross the border in a convoy, looking like soldiers headed into a military operation. They travel through areas where dead bodies can be seen hanging upside down, and finally encounter a giant traffic jam: the drug barons are waiting for them and the first battle – savage and frightening – begins.

In an effort to bring down the Diaz family and capture its leader, the Americans collaborate with Mexican law enforcement officials, even though they know the integrity of local officers is uncertain: many of them are no less corrupt than the drug dealers, and even work for them. We come to understand this slowly, but the more important revelation is that the drug war perverts everyone involved in it, cops included. Moral codes are entirely theoretical, and we watch them dissolve as the actions of the “good guys” and “bad guys” become increasingly similar.

If Kate represents some kind of moral touchstone, she also becomes increasingly lost inside this moral uncertainty, even as she tries to hold onto her values. Meanwhile, the ambivalence of the movie is represented by another character, Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro, who won an Oscar in 2001 for his supporting role in Steven Soderbergh’s “Traffic” – another movie about the drug trade on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border). A Colombian-born, former prosecutor who joins the U.S. task force, Alejandro remains a shadowy figure throughout: his motives are unclear, but he may be the only one who truly understands the reality around him, knowing that any victory over the drug barons is only an illusion and cannot really change the situation. Triumph may bring satisfaction to the victors, but their vanity is the sole beneficiary, concealing the slippery truth that “Sicario” tries to impart: the war on drugs is a lost cause, leaving anyone who fights in it lost inside his or her own darkness.

The movie places Matt’s cynicism – both overt and repressed – between Kate’s integrity and Alejandro’s ambivalence. Matt believes in professionalism as an all-American value and although he realizes it’s pointless, remains committed to it – otherwise, what else is the United States left to do?

“Sicario” is a movie about the war on the flow of drugs from South and Central America into the United States, and it handles this topic with a tough, uncompromising wisdom. It is effective both as entertainment and as a complex, credible portrait of the reality it presents. What draws us in is not the fireworks of the action sequences, but rather, the blurring of moral and ideological lines. Everyone is implicated by what we see, and at some point this extends even to us, the audience. Above all, there is the human reality to which “Sicario” introduces us – on both sides of the border and on either end of the battle between criminals and law officials. The rich, precise portrayal of this human world is what gives the movie its ambience, depth and validity.

“Sicario” is well written, well directed and features fine performances by Blunt, Brolin, Del Toro and others. If you’ve been waiting for an action movie to take you beyond the rather dreary norms of the genre, this is the one.