Sicario, the myth of American innocence & the war on drugs

SicarioIn the mid-nineties, my brother and I drove all the way down the west coast of Mexico, stopped in Guatemala for a couple of weeks, then drove up Mexico’s eastern coast to Texas and onto Florida. Our time in Mexico was pretty much problem free (with the exception of the time we were pulled over by narcotics police at a check point on a remote stretch of road outside Cancun and my brother dissed one of the cops – but that’s another story). Indeed, the only instance in which we were threatened with genuine violence occurred not in Mexico but when gun was pulled on us in a bar in Miami. I struggled to reconcile my memories of Mexico as I watched Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario.

Sicario (warning, spoilers follow) opens with a group of police, led by Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) busting into a house in the outer suburbs of Phoenix, suspected of having links to one of the Mexican drug cartels. There they make a gruesome discover. Entombed in the plasterboard walls are numerous corpses, wrapped in plastic, the victims of cartel kidnapping and murder. No sooner have forensics arrived to start cataloguing the bodies, then a bomb goes off in the backyard, killing two of the officers.

Kate is called into a meeting with her superiors and a mysterious man called Graver (Josh Brolin) and asked whether she wants to volunteer for a new assignment. The details are scarce but they promise it will involve her playing a bigger and more effective part in the war against the cartels. She agrees and before she knows it is on a plane to the Mexican city of Juarez with Graver and another man, Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro). They take possession of a nameless man who has vital information about cartel activities in the US and bring him back across the US/Mexico border, but not before being caught in a bloody shoot out with cartel members trying to intercept and take their captive back.

Kate watches Graver and Alejandro arrest, torture and kill people suspected of links with a particular US-based cartel member who they are trying to flush into the open, all the while having no real idea what is going on. She eventually tells her boss about Graver and Alejandro’s illegal and violent activities only to be told what they are doing has been sanctioned at the highest levels of the US government. Even if it involves breaching Mexican sovereignty and crossing the boundaries of what is legal, she asks. ‘The boundaries have been moved,’ he replies.

The next stage of the campaign against the cartels involves storming a tunnel complex used by traffickers to move drugs from Juarez to the US. This time, Graver is helped by a shadowy team of ex-US soldiers who have done time in the Middle East. Shocked by what she is seeing, Kate confronts Graver about the real nature of the assignment she has signed up for and learns he and Alejandro are part of a special CIA squad charged with disrupting cartel activities, violently and by any means necessary.

Some of the scenes in Sicario, including the lead-up to the confrontation on the US/Mexico border mentioned earlier and the tunnel fight, are incredibly suspenseful. But don’t look to this film for any insights into the situation in Mexico or the failed US war on drugs. While the performances are solid, they are a bit one-dimensional. Blunt is the conscience of the film, trying to preserve some semblance of rule of law amid the carnage. Brolin and Del Toro are the Id of American foreign policy, tasked with wreaking bloody vengeance on the cartels. Brolin does it because it’s his job and he’s obviously done this sort of thing before. Del Toro’s character is a former operative for the Medellin Cartel in Columbia, now a killer for hire. He is motivated by the trauma resulting from the brutal murder of his wife and child by one of the cartels.

Mexico – or Juarez at least – is portrayed as a hell on earth, a violent, lawless place, where everyone is corrupt, fire fights erupt in the middle of busy streets and the mutilated bodies of cartel victims hang from overpasses in broad daylight. The film contains a very partial glimpse of the situation on the Mexican side of the border, via a few scenes in the life of a corrupt Mexican cop and his family, but these serve little purpose but to reinforce what a war zone Mexico has become and how no one can be trusted.

Mexico is obviously a very different place from the one my brother and I visited in the mid-nineties. The cartels are responsible for some horrific deeds and their war of terror against the Mexican people is a very real thing with tragically real consequences. But surely there is more to the situation than this. Even Steven Soderbergh’s somewhat ham fisted attempt to examine the problem of drugs, Traffic (2000), contained some nuance and attempted to examine the problems from different perspectives.

What most rankled me about Sicario was the ridiculous fantasy it peddled about America’s innocence in the face of the activities of the cartels. As Graver sees it, the cartels are strengthened by corruption in Mexico and the twenty per cent of the US population who insist on using drugs. Full stop. In the face of this, America is portrayed as having no choice but to intervene extra legally in another sovereign country. Worse, this is depicted as some sort of novelty in terms of American policy.

The reality, of course, is that Washington has a long history of meddling south of its border and, to use the words of Kate’s police superior, the boundaries have always been shifting. Washington also has to shoulder part of the responsibility for its narcotics problem, due to the impacts of its disastrous war on drugs and its support for governments and guerrilla movements deeply involved in drug trafficking.

I don’t insist my thrillers have to be political. It’s good when they are and do it well, but I’m happy just to sit back and take in the thrills and action. It is Sicario’s thinly veiled attempt to portray itself as containing some deeper meaning about the war on drugs that makes it such a deeply unsatisfying film.


6 Responses

  1. Great review. I agree wholeheartedly with your analysis. Some moments of heart-stopping suspense, Sicario ultimately reflects rather than challenges a long tradition of denial and deflection when it comes to US drug policy.

  2. On the money review Andrew. I’ve been ranting about this film since we saw it and Leigh recommended that I check out your review. I didn’t know anything about Sicario before I saw it and was troubled by many aspects of it. I checked out a few reviews retrospectively to check that I was not going mad but lo and behold – I was mad. It was just a “superb”, “profound thriller” about nasty drug people and the shadowy figures that do battle with them. Really? To me it seemed like the exterminator heading off to work to rid the world of some pesky sub-human Mexicans who are trying to diminish the democratic Shangri La that is the US. And they do. End of story. No casualties, no injuries, just high fives all around and a good snigger at a job well done.

    This seems like just another theatre of US war now – it’s super-high-tech and casualties are a matter for the other side. As a drama it was redundant – no one has changed or developed at the end. But as a moral tale it’s toxic and on a par with 24 (torture is always a necessity in defence of a silent, clueless majority). Why are all the nice, liberal reviewers swooning over it? Maybe it’s being consumed ironically – a warning about government overreach. But it didn’t read like that to me nor to the couple of people around us at the cinema who really yukked it up at the racist taunts, “I love when they no habla Ingles,” and torture. The filmmakers might spruik an ironic reading for a film festival crowd but for me it was the love child of an unholy Regan Bush union in a post-Noriega post-Patriot Act dystopia. It will have the real world Gravers high fiving in the aisle at the Cineplex. But maybe I’m just paranoid…

  3. Michael,
    Very nicely put. The more I have thought about this film, the more it has disturbed me. I have also been amazed, like you, that so many of my lefty friends seem to love it.
    As an aside, if you want to see a decent film about the drug war in Mexico, check out the Mexican film, Miss Bala. It is everything Sicario is not. Here’s my review:

  4. My overriding impression watching this was that some studio commissioning producer, decided that ‘The War on Drugs’ needed it’s equivalent of Zero Dark Thirty.

    The problem being that the earlier film was also pretentious, dishonest and abhorrent….

  5. Wow, is this a serious article?
    “I had a novel, anecdotal experience in Mexico therefore I have and understanding of this topic.”
    Are you aware that the vast majority of women who cross the border illegally are raped during their journey?
    Besides your total arrogance regarding Mexico, you completely misinterpreted the film regarding morality. The entire point of the film was that these characters have lost their moral compass and the only characters with moral compasses were beaten down and forced to sacrifice their integrity in order to simply survive the system.
    child #1 “This film is just not progressive enough for me!!!”
    child #2 “Yes I’m surprised my fellow lefty friends enjoyed it as much!!!”
    I can’t imagine being this much of a lock-step zombie; you people are truly astonishing.

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