WASHINGTON, November 4, 2015 – Dennis Villeneuve’s film “Sicario” opens with an explanation of what a “sicario” is: a hit man or hired killer. This explanatory narrative, while not fundamentally important to understanding the movie’s story line quickly evokes the sense of dread and terror that permeates this film.
“Sicario” focuses on our long-running war on drugs. The “war” is a muddled prospect at best, and “Sicario” is painted in varying shades of grey as it deals with this complicated subject.
Pinning down the ethics and morals of the films characters is a tricky prospect. For better or worse, individuals remain who they are throughout the film’s duration.
No one is induced to shift his or her belief system despite the opportunities to do so.
Everything we need to know is presented up front and center, yet on a “need to know” basis. Sparse information trickles out but only one drop at a time.
The film begins in Arizona under skies painted in never-ending shades of gray, underscoring the moral and ethical tone of both the characters and the action.
No one is really dealing with anyone else on the up and up, because, in the viewpoint of this film, there’s not really a right side to be on.
Those gray skies create a sense of tension, as if there’s a big storm approaching and that never quite comes – only offering a constant warning of violence on the horizon. That is, until the audience realizes that are in the middle of the storm. And have been all along.
At the center of this criminal movie maelstrom is FBI SWAT Agent Kate Mercer (Emily Blunt) who is involved in a drug bust that doesn’t go as planned, uncovering some valuable but unintended information. Several local officers are killed.
Noticing Mercer is not unduly shaken by the drug bust fiasco, she is urged to join (alleged) Department of Defense operative Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) to find the man ultimately responsible for the initial drug bust catastrophe.
The opening sequence involving Kate, Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya) and the rest of the agents and police officers is downright chilling, but the narrative sprints on leaving no room for reflection.
It isn’t until Kate is asked to talk to Matt that everything begins to unravel for her. This scene dovetails with her encounter with, Alejandro Gillick (Benicio Del Toro), the films Sicario. This matched pair of meetings is when the casual misdirection and misinformation that drive this film really gets underway.
While Matt Graver doesn’t sets everything into motion, both he and his apparent motivations keep the narrative rolling, as his character becomes ever more tentative and disturbing. While it never seems as if he’s involved in outright lies, he’s dodgy enough to shake our already tentative level of confidence.
What Graver’s particularly mission really is, what his job title may actually be, what Alejandro’s role may be, and why Kate is caught up in all of this – these are all questions that are raised in short order. The only thing he seems to be clear on is just whom they’re supposed to be hunting: Mexican cartel boss Manuel Diaz.
Adding to the confusion is the dawning fact that our heroine is in way over her head from the minute she meets Matt. She’s not remotely qualified for what she’s about to confront.
While the audience views the movie’s unfolding action through the eyes of Kate – watching her soul erode in the process – this film isn’t really her story. She’s just the catalyst for the involvement of everyone else.
Alejandro is the hired gun Matt Graves points at the cartels. But to make it all happen, Graves and Alejandro need Kate – or at least someone in Kate’s position.
This where the ominous nature of this film begins to gather force. It’s Kate’s dawning realization that she’s just another pawn in a much longer and wider game than she imagined. She discovers she’s just been dropped into the middle of chaos without a lifeline and without any information or backstory at all. It’s at this point that she finally realizes just how big and damning her situation truly is. It’s also at this moment that we begin to understand that “Sicario” is really the story of Alejandro’s revenge.
Alejandro himself isn’t all that concerned with the war against the drug cartels. What gives his live meaning is his powerful drive to get revenge on cartel boss Diaz for his own personal reasons. He doesn’t much care how this is accomplished as long as it gets done. Everything else is secondary. For his own part, Matt doesn’t really care how Alejandro gets his revenge either, just as long as he does the deed.
On the periphery, there’s the unfortunate Kate, the unwitting and unwilling voyeur in all of this duplicitous action, watching all of it unfold while trying to regain some aspect of her own agency. The audience keeps expecting something horrible to happen to Kate. And indeed, without giving away any spoilers, some pretty terrible things do happen to her.
“Sicario” is a film that’s all about real-life monsters: how they’re created, and the deals cut with them to benefit various not-necessarily-related goals.
But the deeper impact, the deeper irony of “Sicario” insidiously reveals itself in the end. The most horrifying aspect of this film isn’t that something terrible is about to happen. Rather, as the slow, almost operatic rolling of the chilling background music constantly hints, something terrible is already happening, has been happening since we took our seats in the theater, and is not likely to stop after we’ve left.
That’s the pure, visceral dread Villeneuve’s sinister “Sicario” creates.