By Tom Platt. In a climate where many citizens see more value investing in a border wall instead of public education or healthcare, a film pitting the CIA against the Mexican drug cartel seems like the perfect patriotic people pleaser. You see the trailer and think that’s cool, but you see the director and your ears perk up. What’s he doing here? Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Enemy) is hardly the man you’d pick to make another American Sniper. Man’s not even American.
Sicario explodes into its first scene with deafening volume as Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) leads her FBI task force in a raid on a drug cartel’s home in Phoenix, AZ. Immediately following the success of the raid, Macer is asked to volunteer for a secretive task force that plans to deal with the escalating drug war at the U.S./Mexico border. After joining however, Macer’s questions continually go unanswered as she plays tag along to the group’s mysteriously troubled advisor, Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), and its ridiculously calm leader, Matt (Josh Brolin in flip flops).
Soon after boarding a private jet to their first mission, the role of each character becomes more apparent. Matt lounges, relaxed and confident in his firepower as well as his morality, while Alejandro sleeps sitting up, his eyelids fluttering uneasily (he is a man who has been on the other side of this conflict and it seems to disturb him endlessly). Finally there is Macer, who carries the audience on her back, but in her attempt to lead us she only discovers more difficult questions that nobody seems prepared to answer.
Villeneuve’s direction and Blunt’s performance allow us moments to breathe between the film’s frequent action sequences. And through Blunt, Macer serves a more vital importance: she continues to ask the tough questions about the policy and execution of the United States’ War on Drugs, and through them the audience is given grounds to ask a few of their own. Consistently portrayed by white men with assault rifles, the CIA’s task force is a unruly group who constantly kill people off screen, as if they were hiding a body count from the only two conscientious objectors on screen, cleverly portrayed by both a woman, and a black man (Daniel Kaluuya).
The CIA stands as a force to be reckoned with, but their strength in the film seems shallow and comes across as coy. It’s as if Sicario were trying to bolster the ego of some United States censorship board by offering a thin layer of frosting atop its harsh criticisms. For just under the skin, the CIA is consistently portrayed as cavalier, and sickly; a force sent to incite chaos on its own terms. It acts less for the sake of the people and more for the sake of creating an order the United States can better understand and potentially control. But who’s watching the watchmen?
Sicario, for all its subtextual criticisms, becomes truly interesting because of how it exercises restraint while it questions the concepts of the black hat/white hat extremism that seems to propagate inside our news feeds. As we walk along the fence that stands between Texas and Mexico, where will our sympathies land as we exit the theater? Will we tuck our convictions away and pretend everything is as it should be? What other option could there possibly be?