Lessons From Sicario

Note from the Editors: This article is the seventh installment of “The American Film Reviews” series.

Wolves of the Revelation: A Review of Denis Villeneuve’s “Sicario”

“You’re asking me how a watch works. For now, just keep an eye on the time.”
— Alexandro Gillick
, ‘Sicario’

When Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario was released in October 2015, America’s burgeoning disillusionment was fast becoming a political mainstay. Successive crises from ISIS to illegal migration to opioids dominated the news. Problems that previously seemed temporary to a once impervious America were beginning to look perennial. Information dumps, intelligence leaks, government lies, and political corruption were depleting what little remained of public trust. All that self-doubt turned to acid, dissolving to reveal uncomfortable truths about the state of our world.

Enter Sicario. The film was a modest hit at the time, especially considering it was released up against Ridley Scott’s blockbuster The Martian. But sometimes films serve more as prophecies than blockbusters. Given the current crisis at the border, revisiting the film is a must, along its valuable insights into the price of national naiveté in the harsh reality of the world as it is, not as we wish it to be.

Sicario is a Western, crime thriller, and war film all in one. FBI Special Agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) serves as a stand-in for the American public and the audience at large. She is naive, headstrong, overconfident, idealistic, and woefully unprepared for the dangers she is about to face. Her élan is abruptly shaken as she is unceremoniously tossed headfirst into the clandestine via recruitment to a joint task force run by the CIA against the Sonora cartel.

A recurring theme in Villeneuve’s work is that of revelations found in dark places. In Prisoners, a father pushes his limits by descending into a very personal hell to find his daughter. In Dune, a prince finds himself lost deep within colonial territory among strange natives. In Blade Runner 2049, an officer of the law quite literally loses himself in the seedy underbelly of a dystopian future shrouded by the lies of his own self-constructed reality. In Sicario, Kate Macer might as well be entering an alien planet when she joins the fight against the cartel. 

We are bewildered by the speed and intensity with which things kick off right from the start. Kate suddenly finds herself in the savage Ciudad Juárez, working with Delta Force operators and CIA agents more accustomed to taking heads than witness statements. Kate’s internal conflict over the revelations she comes upon is ceaseless, despite many touchstone characters’ attempts to show her the harsh realities of the world as it is. But while she is quite literally beaten, battered, shocked, and awed throughout the film, she still holds on to her world as she wishes it to be: the one she believes she can control.

The various characters who try to teach Kate, by contrast, are men who’ve accepted their fate, and, in some cases, completely surrendered to it. These are hard men, warriors without time for the naiveté and idealism of the general public that Kate displays. They know the stakes. They are shrouded in gear, shadow, and obfuscating dialogue. They are a warrior caste, living in the dark reality of the ground level while the rest of society plays its games and has its arguments. They are the reason society can afford these luxuries and they know it. When one of these men, Alejandro (a former Medellín cartel hitman played brilliantly by Benicio del Toro) tells Kate: “You should move to a small town where the rule of law still exists. You will not survive here. You are not a wolf. And this is the land of wolves now,” he isn’t just speaking to her: he is speaking to the audience as well. 

Emily Blunt, right, in a scene from “Sicario” (2015)

As America faces the threat of its own extinction, there will be many battles to come along the main front: the southern border. Cartels are becoming stronger, more emboldened, and more integrated into Latin narcostate infrastructure. Most Americans don’t care or have so little exposure that they don’t even understand what’s happening. They are, as Kate, completely ignorant of the harsh realities of the situation – they act tough and feebly try to exert control through various forms of moralizing.

As the Regime faces a rising backlash due to its growing exposure on this front, which it cannot, and will not stop, it will inevitably give increased latitude to unaccountable NGOs, underworld gangs, and international cartels to keep the flow of drugs and migrants open. We will see more violence, depravity, and crime spill deeper into the country. But the only thing holding back the tide of such destruction is unleashing the hard men of the warrior caste loose upon these threats. Try as we might, soft hands cannot stop what’s coming. Only wolves can.

One of the best scenes in Sicario comes early in the film during the border gunfight, where Kate’s hesitation and inaction are deeply contrasted with the professional operators’ fast, smooth, and overwhelming response. They got the job done, and she didn’t. Now she must either adapt and go home. But her idealism and belief in the world as she wishes it to be, continuously hold her back. From the opening scene to the border gunfight, from the corrupt cop up to the climax of the film, she stubbornly refuses to learn, repeatedly putting her own life in danger. She is caught up in forces far beyond her control, confronted with the cold hard truth of the world as it is, yet she still resists. Why?

Like the American public, Kate fears the implications, despite the allure of their enlightenment. Doing so would mean that her pride and principles failed her and that her system is indeed dysfunctional. She wants to remain clean and high above it all. But this repudiation is as pointless as it is powerless. She cannot stop such monstrous evil her way. She cannot survive in the land of wolves. Slowly, she begins to realize the entire world is the land of wolves. It’s a glacial revelation that she desperately denies, in vain.

Even at the beginning of the film, Kate has to be forcibly shown the ugliness lurking beneath our soft modern exterior when she is almost shot. The blast reveals bodies beneath the walls, and the terror is brilliantly palpable. This carnage is continuously inflicted on civilians caught in the crossfire due to the inability of “the system” to fix the problem, shown through Mexican police officer Silvio who works for the cartel on the side. Some see Silvio as an undermining insert, but his fate merely reinforces the price of the policy naiveté that led us here.

In the end, the violent tempest rages all around Kate. She is lost in the storm of blood, in the winds of deception, in the thunder of gunfire. Her lament means nothing, barely registering as speed bumps in the wider conflict roiling beneath the surface of her worldview. We witness the price of Kate’s (and our own) ignorance in allowing the problem to fester. When, at the end of the film, Alejandro seeks out his vengeance upon the cartel’s boss, we are left to see the tragic results of such a world; we see the world as it is. 

Ultimately, Sicario works because it tells a compelling story of hidden truths, reinforced by masterfully apprehensive pangs of doom and dread. Like Kate, we often don’t know how to interpret the vicious intrusions into our carefully constructed reality of the world as we wish it to be. Yet, it still calls to us from the periphery of our illusions, beckoning us to come and see. No matter how tall we build our ivory towers, the true reality of the world will reign supreme. Or, as Alejandro succinctly puts it: “Nothing will make sense to your American ears, but in the end, you will understand.”

Tom Rhodes is an American writer. He can be followed @vagrantwires.

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