An In-Depth Examination of Sicario: A Trueblood Killer of the Modern Crime Thriller

There was a sort of hollowness I felt after the entire experience as if a part of my innocence was lost. But unlike horror films in which the act of violation stems from paranoia or uncertainty of physical safety, the insecurity that festered within was far more unsettling. It was not the fear of an unnatural, inhuman evil pouncing at me from the dark but rather the confrontation of the grim possibility that the evil of man it is all too natural. The power of the craft of filmmaking is its ability to make the audience feel for fictitious characters and for a moment escape to a foreign, yet familiar reality. A sort of dream space that draws from both the grounded and grandiose. Here in Sicario, it is a glorious nightmare borrowed from a world we know too well, dreamt up by one of the greatest storytellers of this generation.

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Sicario much like the neo-noir films of the 40’s and 50’s is a film that lives and breathes within the period in which it appeared. By no means does this diminish its quality or potency due to lack of relevancy. However, its cynical tone and subject matter is most effective on a post 9/11 people. Now more than ever, are the elements of the noble struggle that were exemplified in the films of a bygone era being deconstructed. Safe to say, the current postmodern climate of moviegoers are far more demanding of the currency of moral complexity, or ambiguity at least, in the media they consume.

Years of South Park, Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy and internet edgelords have thoroughly bred a generation that has more stomach than heart. Long story short, if you’ve been to 4Chan, there’s probably very little that surprises you in terms of human depravity. So believe me when I say, that my peers and I were completely disgusted if not traumatized by the horrors we witnessed in Sicario.

Far from the gritty yet comical lip-service to realism we see in crime films like End of Watch and more relatable than the removed, alienating thriller of No Country for Old Men, Sicario is a beast in a league of its own. Refusing to trade its dark decorum for high octane camp or its aching heart for Stallonian bravado, it is misery at its finest and purest. With Sicario: Day of the Soldado peeking around the corner, I cannot think of a better time than now to take a look back at Villeneuve’s critically acclaimed classic. Grab your blood pressure medication and leave your virtues at the door, as we revisit the rapidly palpating heart of darkness that is Sicario.   

Good Cop, Mad World

It must be said that Sicario is a bit of slow burn, meaning that the film isn’t too interested in rushing you from one action set-piece to the next. This is all for the better. The effectiveness of the film’s ability to impress the violence and “action” into the audience’s psyche requires a certain amount of momentum to be gathered. Rarely is there the joy or the fun of a kinetic, high noon shootout, many of these acts of cruelty are often premeditated before being executed. For lesser films, this would have disparaged scenes of tension but Sicario avoids this pitfall by wisely placing us in the shoes of Emily Blunt’s plucky, by-the-book FBI agent Kate Macer. We are privy to the information that she is privy to and when she hits a brick wall, we are just as frustrated and indignant as she is to the wider conspiracy at play.

The film conceals its intentions and plans to the audience the way Josh Brolin’s CIA Agent Matt Graver does with Macer. Like the protagonist, we’re there for the meetings and tactical briefings before the mission is launched and just as woefully ill-equipped as she is to process the carnage that unfolds before us. The film is not confronting us with the offence of extraordinary evil. It challenges us to accept the reality that it has always been there. By the time the greater conspiracy is unravelled before our very eyes, we are just as horrified as Macer is upon understanding the full gravity of the situation.

Another perspective that the film alternates between is the titular Sicario himself, Alejandro Gillick. Unlike Macer, however, he isn’t there to be our eyes and ears or to provide clarity. He’s there to stir the hornet’s nest and provide a means to exact order upon a lawless land. When we get scenes with him alone, doing what he does best whether it be torture or dispatching cartel jefes, there’s a sort of ambiguity that is left to our imagination. We see the effects or prelude to his actions but never the full picture. This omission and refusal to provide the full context of a scene really emphasizes the character’s role and personality in the film. The different approach the film takes to perspective and character POV enhances the personality and functions of the key players while also making the editing a character by its own.

Nonetheless, no matter how well constructed a narrative maybe, without interesting characters and dynamic performances, it will not stand on its own. I can say without a shadow of a doubt that the three key players of the dramatis personae here have certainly done their characters justice. Emily Blunt as the tough and righteous lawbringer is no damsel in distress, nor is she a passive observer throughout the events of the film. And while she certainly does struggle to find the bottom of the treacherous rabbit hole, it has less to do with her sex than it has to do with her moral compass. Therefore when we see her put up a tough front or simply break down before composing herself, there are layers to her performance. She is a woman trying so hard to do what’s right in a world that believes you can fight fire with fire.

Brolin as the condescending, sly and secretive taskmaster Matt Graver here is surprisingly a lot of fun. He is a man in his element, unabashed about using excessive force and seemingly all-knowing as the head of operations. His lighter and more casual demeanour is often betrayed by a cold steely look in his eyes, a man who is committed to the fight and will unleash hell on earth to win it. Speaking of hell, Benicio Del Toro as Alejandro Gillick is a killer so cold he’d freeze it over.

Del Toro doesn’t play so much as a man than he does as a force of nature. To see Gillick swing from gentlemanly gestures to threatening the family of cartel members with rape to cannibalizing his own is a frightening endeavour. He is a wolf, he is the Sicario.

Shock And Awe

Within the subgenre that is the crime thriller, moments of tension are a mainstay. Scenes in which the stakes mount into a fever pitch and the audience holds its breath in restless anticipation, waiting for the proverbial shit to hit the fan. Some of the best examples of thriller tension would be the bank robbery in Michael Mann’s Heat or the basement scene in Zodiac. But few films can match the technical brilliance of Sicario, particularly the scene at the border.

Right from the get go, when the US team enters into the heart of Juarez, Mexico (affectionately known as the Beast), there is an air of dread that follows them. The way the camera ominously watches the convoy from above accompanied by composer Johann Johannsson’s score titled The Beast, is already setting us up for one hell of a payoff. The Beast is an amazing piece of musical tool for setting a scene. At first reminiscent of faint war drums in the distance, creeping louder and louder in the background right before the violins swell, signalling foreboding danger. It creates a sort of synesthesia between the presence of the score and the possibility of violence or conflict approaching. Not going to lie, it was my ringtone for awhile.

Many of us were expecting to see a huge shootout as the military convoy rode into a land that seemed all too foreign and hostile to their presence. Danger seems to be hinted at around every corner, from the mutilated bodies hanging from overpasses to the threat of corrupt local cops double crossing Graves and Macer. So it seemed like if conflict was going to happen, it would most likely be sparked off in the enemy turf.

Villeneuve however, like a seasoned chef, takes his time to let our tension and suspense stew in his pressure cooker before releasing it just at the right time. Just as the team extracts its target and is making its way back over the border, they find themselves stuck in traffic. The relief that we once felt over their seemingly deathless run through Juarez is abruptly halted in traffic, leaving them vulnerable and open like sitting ducks. And this is when our suspense begins to inflate as we see two civilian cars full of armed gang members waiting to jump the convoy. The danger is clear and we assume that this would be the moment for fatal catharsis.

No! The US team holds and must wait to be engaged with before engaging the enemy combatant. So the moment when the US team sees the potential threat, they leap into action to apprehend them. And yet the tension is still held as the score drones on in the background! When it finally happens when the gang members attempt to shoot them, it ends all too quickly with clean and efficient shots. Then, it happens again. We are left breathless, thinking the danger is over. Suddenly, it is revealed that a member of the state police is a traitor and attempts to kill Macer.

The result of this entire sequence is shock and awe. The way violence is framed in an unembellished fashion without being overly gratuitous is like a splash of cold water after being left in the heat for what felt like forever. Everything from the music to the breathtaking cinematography by Roger Deakins is made to work like a pressure cooker and the product of it is one the best thriller sequence I’ve seen in a long time.      

Heart of Darkness

Beyond merely being an excellent, well-paced crime film revolving around the American war on drugs, Sicario is a disturbing and sobering look into morality and its many, many shades of grey. We see a clash of ethics here between Macer’s deontological approach to the law and Graver and Gillick’s less than idealistic form of moral order through consequentialist justice. Ethical philosophers such as Immanuel Kant propose that it is not merely the results of an action that justifies the act but rather an adherence to a law or a universal maxim that should be the factor that permits it as morally sound.

Graver on the other hand subscribes to a strain of consequentialism known as utilitarianism, an ethical theory that purports that an action no matter how ethically dubious can be justified as long as it provides the maximum amount of benefit for the majority of the parties involved. So in a land of wolves and jackals, Graver truly believes that between the choice of chaotic evil (the Sonaro Cartel and various other gangs) and a more orderly kind (the Medellin Cartel), an evil that can be controlled and reasoned with is a far more viable option.

In the end, it is Macer who concedes in her ideological struggle when she is forced to sign a document that legalizes the joint task force’s reestablishment of a rival criminal organization in a foreign land outside of their jurisdiction. Gillick even tells her to return  a land where the rule of law still exists because in their world, there is no room for universal maxims or moral grandstanding. It is the bullet that is the beginning and end of the argument. The reason why such cruel and ruthless methods are required in the world of Sicario are just as compelling as well.

The film deals with two types of evil here, moral evil and natural evil. Moral evil is caused by intentional human agents who choose to commit negative actions or permit it to occur. Here in Sicario, moral evil is rampant and infectious. From wealthy druglords to corrupt cops trying to provide for their families, the drug trade has in a sense catalyze, if not amplify, the human capacity for greed and cruelty. To meet the escalating threat, the US forces find themselves having to indulge if not flat-out retaliate with a similar sort of evil, fighting fire with fire.

In the film, Graver acts as a sort of agent of a removed deity that is the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), orchestrating and intervening in international affairs, and using proxies to do its will. Much like a vengeful god who uses or permits a typhoon or earthquake, natural evils to restore moral order, Graver uses Alejandro Gillick as his instrument of wrath. Traditionally, divine beings are held responsible for the presence of natural evil but the evil itself is not necessarily thinking or feeling but rather a product of its environment.

Though Alejandro is far from unthinking, he is a product of his environment seeing that he is a victim of cartel violence with his wife and daughter killed. He is a man motivated by vengeance alone and he will cut anyone down, regardless whether it be friend or foe, to reach his target. Uncaring and indiscriminate of anyone that lies in his warpath. This is made especially clear when Graver explains to a distraught Macer near the end of the film about how unless this moral evil can exorcised from Juarez, the best option is to maintain order through a lesser evil. Gillick is the man to restore that order.

The most tragic aspect of the film however is the reality of violence. In Juarez, grizzly sights and shootings are a constant occurrence. Little can be done to eliminate the cycle of violence completely, since the drug trade, an analogy for moral evil, is so deeply embedded in the lives of the locals. They can’t even trust their own law enforcement. No scene captures this despair and cycle so perfectly as the scene at the end of the film when the son of a corrupt cop goes to play football with the rest of his peers. This fun however is halted upon the crowd hearing the sound of gunshots in the distance. Nobody screams, nobody frets. They just wait for a few moment before returning back to their game. Violence is normalized and the cycle continues.

If you haven’t had a chance to check out Sicario, there’s no better time to do it than now. It is a taut, tightly-paced, thought provoking thriller that belongs on anyone’s “best of” list. 10 years from people will look back at this film and will wonder about the world that was. From action to thriller to psychological horror, there’s something here for everyone except for the faint of heart.

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