In 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.