The War on (Other People’s) Drugs has always been great fodder for Hollywood. There are good guys, there are bad guys, and the violent nature of the drug trade means there’s lots of opportunities for shootouts and car chases and all the other action movie stuff that Americans love. Rarely do these movies ask if there might be something pointless about the whole exercise.
Sicario has a lot of those trappings, but they’re seen through a smudged lens. There are bad guys, all right. There are good guys, but from early on the question of just how good they are is in play. And there are plenty of well played action sequences, including the most tense road trip ever that didn’t involve your in-laws.
But there’s something else going on in Sicario, largely because the main character, played by Emily Blunt, has so little to do with the bigger picture into which she’s swept. She’s a tactical specialist brought into an operation that doesn’t have anything to do with her specialty (hostage rescue). That leaves her with lots of time to question the legality and morality of the entire operation. She never really comes around, but gets beaten down by what she sees.
It’s an interesting narrative choice. A more traditional approach would have made Benicio del Toro’s character the protagonist, which would fit comfortably into the ever popular revenge fantasy niche (del Toro, by the way is fantastic – Oscar, here he comes). But that would make us root for him in a way that making Blunt the main character doesn’t allow. We look at what she does with the same kind of (hopefully) disgusted detachment.
That being said, what does Sicario say about the War on (Other People’s) Drugs itself? Two things, both of which aren’t likely to come through in your typical action flick.
For one, the film implies that the high minded ideals of the war are actually just cover for much more personal motives. The head of all this covert fun, Josh Brolin’s character, first tries to convince Blunt that his strategy is about luring a big cartel’s main man in the US to go to Mexico, to the big boss, since they don’t know where he is. Blunt’s objection that they don’t have jurisdiction in Mexico is waved away. Next, he tries to justify the op with a kind of drug-fueled real politik – that the actual problem is the expanding number of cartels shipping drugs to the US and that the solution is to make sure there are fewer of them that can, at least, be more easily controlled.
All this is, to put it politely (oh, spoiler alert!), bullshit. At its heart, the story Sicario tells is a revenge story. Del Toro’s character, who’s position in the governmental hierarchy is never nailed down, is in it to avenge the death of his wife and child. Thus, all the issues about violating another nation’s sovereignty and the scope of a particular agency’s authority are pushed aside for the most personal of motives.
The other thing that comes through comes as a result of some scenes in Juarez, Mexico, that follow a Mexican state police officer (an important distinction from the Mexican federal officers). His son plays soccer, which is just a detail about his home life until the very end. His mother takes him to a game, played on a bare dirt lot in Juarez, around which the sounds of gunfire rattle off every few moments. At first it’s unsettling, but everyone goes on with their lives.
The point, it seems to me, is that even after a great blow has been struck against the bad guys, the problem continues to exist. My theory has long been that the reason the War on (Other People’s) Drugs is destined to fail is because it’s actually a war on human desire, a desire to escape the shitty world around us. Sicario seems to agree that it’s ultimately fruitless, but on other grounds.
Either way, it’s refreshing to see a movie that, on the one hand, is set up to be the conventional good guy v. bad guy story, then turns out to ask deeper questions. Throw in lots of great performances and some really tense set pieces and Sicario is an excellent, if unsettling, piece of work.