Sicario: Newsflash—Drug War Is Messed Up On Both Sides!

sicario posterSicario is a peculiar piece of work. It’s smart and sleek, dark and tense, but in terms of structure and character it slowly falls apart the longer it goes on. Strangest of all, it features a lead character whose every scene could be cut without affecting the outcome. Not a good move on the part of first-time writer Taylor Sheridan.

Emily Blunt plays Kate Macer, an FBI agent working on kidnappings related to the drug war, who’s asked to volunteer for a team led by Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), who is maybe some kind of DOJ guy, or so we think at first. He doesn’t supply many details. He’s going to get the top guys is what he tells Kate, namely Fausto (Julio Cedillo), mysterious head honcho of the biggest Mexican cartel, whose number two guy, Manuel Díaz, she’s been trying and failing to find and put away.

So far so good. Blunt plays Kate as tough and driven. You get the feeling she’s ready for anything. She meets another mysterious member of the team, Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro). He talks less than Graver, but clearly he’s a bad-ass of some kind.

Kate when she was tough

Kate when she was tough

First thing they do is zip into Mexico to nab Díaz’s brother, Guillermo, which ends with a bunch of tough guys being shot dead in stalled traffic at the border crossing. Kate is confused and angry, but as before, Graver tells her to relax and observe.

Still the movie’s working well enough. Seems to be playing the “Kate left in the dark” angle a bit long, but what the hell, you figure, there’s going to be a big reveal down the line. And soon enough Graver and Gillick’s plan is made clearer. They want to create havoc for Díaz, thus forcing him to drive to Mexico and talk to his boss, Fausto, leading the good guys to his door.

Brolin as the gung-ho American

Brolin as the gung-ho American

Which to me sounds like a decent plan. I mean maybe it’s shady? Sneaking into Mexico to whack an evil drug lord? Well, sure. But he is an evil drug lord, after all. One could get into how the U.S. with its insane war on drugs created the cartels, but that’s a whole other box of weasels to open up. Given what the reality is, one would assume the U.S. to be interested in wiping out the biggest and baddest of drug lords any way they can.

Kate doesn’t see it this way. She’s outraged again. Thinks they should just arrest Díaz once they find out how he’s been laundering his drug money. Goes to her boss to complain about her team and what they’re planning.

At which point all I was thinking was, why is Kate such an idiot? Why would she want to arrest a lesser bad guy, when leaving him be means they get the big bad guy? Various higher-ups explain to her at length why going for the baddest bad guy is actually a good move, and that Graver and Gillick are under orders from Washington, so it’s as legal an operation as any other one the U.S. government okays. Which, granted, might not fill one with confidence, but rules is rules. Kate continues to be outraged.

Go get him!

Go get him!

If the filmmakers wanted Kate to be a by-the-book audience stand-in for decency and the rule of law in the face of a corrupt government, they failed. Instead she’s just…confusing. I never understood why I was supposed to care about her constant complaining. Again, everything Graver and Gillick want to do sounds pretty much like what you’d expect them to be doing, and they seem to be pretty good at doing it.

Don't mess with del Toro

Don’t mess with del Toro

To be fair, what they’re actually doing—and why—turns out to be a good deal shadier, when all is revealed. And yet—it’s still not surpising. And throughout, Kate never does anything but what she’s already done, which is complain about it. It was only when the movie ended that I realized this to be literally true. Kate never does anything in Sicario. None of her very few actions change the stoy one bit. If you snipped her out of every scene, the story would play out exactly as before. Wait, that’s not true. There’s one sequence where she does something stupid and has to be bailed out by Gillick. But that sequence doesn’t affect the plot, it only affects Kate, turning her into a still weaker character.

Kate’s job is to follow around Graver and Gillick’s team, to observe, as Graver tells her, not to act. Now as it turns out there’s a plot-motivated reason why they need Kate present yet sidelined, but so what? That’s no excuse for her playing no role in the story.

Down in the tunnels

Down in the tunnels

Denis Villeneuve directs the proceedings well. It’s not a dull movie. Many scenes crackle with life. Del Toro is gripping. It’s no wonder the proposed sequel is going to feature his character as the lead. But I could never feel fully involved. It’s a movie where you can see what you’re probably supposed to be feeling without ever feeling it. I mean I have to presume that I’m supposed to be feeling what Kate’s feeling, that she’s the audience surrogate, that her outrage should likewise be mine at the shocking methods the government is using to whack drug lords, and the reason for whacking this one in particular. But I didn’t find the methods shocking. Or suprising. It’s hard to imagine that a character actually involved in the drug war, like Kate, could be more shocked and outraged than me, a guy in a room typing, when she learns there’s no end in sight, that the best they can hope for is moderating the violence. Was she expecting to make a few arrests and be done with it?

The only other option, says Graver to Kate, is finding a way to make twenty percent of the U.S. population stop snorting coke. But then he works for the government, so I guess he can be excused for not knowing about a much simpler means of ending the drug war: legalization.

5 responses on “Sicario: Newsflash—Drug War Is Messed Up On Both Sides!

    • Definitely an “oh look, this movie is on cable, think i’ll have a beer and watch it” kind of flick.

  1. I have now seen this. And yes: what?

    I mean, Kate is obviously supposed to be “The American Public” whose lack of action in the face of clear evidence allows all this vileness (we need you here because without you we can’t do the operations, right?) but… that leaves Kate as a pathetic weakling when she’s clearly not pathetic or weak; she’s Emily Blunt. So. Yeah. It just doesn’t work despite some excellently tense sequences and some strong imagery.

    If Villeneuve wanted his audience to leave feeling responsible for the ongoing, extra-legal excesses of the drug war, I think he failed. If he wanted people to feel shocked and thrilled, it’s less of a failure, but it’s got such a lame-duck ending.

    There are good ideas in here, good revelations — when the cartel boss asks who do you think we learned these tactics from? the USA; when del Toro shoots the Mexican cop — but those pieces don’t tie into clarity. It’s purposefully muddled as some sort of ode to the reality of the drug war, just… bleh. I so wanted Kate to shoot him at the end or anything else but continue to be a stooge.

Yeah, well, you know, that's just, like, your opinion, man.