When did the “War on Drugs” escalate into an actual war? Watching the opening of director Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario, in which the FBI crash through the front of a house with an enormous, armored vehicle, one is reminded of images from the 1980s of tanks plowing into crack houses, images that rightly caused public outrage. By now, we have become inured to the idea that law enforcement uses military tactics to maintain law and order—at least, when it has to. So in Sicario, knocking down the front of a house doesn’t seem outrageous. There are hostages. There are bloodthirsty drug dealers. The good guys need to win. This isn’t time for mincing about.
Alas, in Sicario, the FBI is too late. Instead of hostages, the agents find a brood of rotting corpses that have been plastered into the walls of the house and a booby trap that takes out a number of agents, compelling agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) to join an inter-agency investigation at the behest of Matt (Josh Brolin), who claims to work for the Department of Defense though Kate has her doubts about whom he actually answers to. What follows is Kate’s education, her rough initiation from innocence to experience, beginning with a legally dubious trip to Juarez during which she meets Alejandro (Benicio del Toro), a renegade from the Colombian drug war even more morally confounding than Matt, who literally leads Kate into the underworld as she pursues him through a tunnel connecting Juarez to El Paso.
While Sicario recalls Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic, it is less didactic in purpose—Traffic, at least in part, seemed intent on showing us the scope of the US/Mexico drug trade, from the upper class users all the way down to the unfortunates who are really nothing more than collateral damage in the showdown between drug dealers and law enforcement. Once its plot gets underway, Sicario seems more willfully pulpy, turning less into an expose of the war on drugs than a taut, brutal revenge drama.
It’s whose revenge that is a bit of a surprise. At the beginning of the movie, as we follow Kate on the job and then into her new position working with Matt, it seems to be Kate’s story, as she moves toward her revenge on those who killed the hostages and especially those FBI agents. But as soon as she joins Matt and Alejandro, it becomes clear that she is not all that important to what unfolds. Neither Matt nor Alejandro tell her what is going on—initially she was told the operation in Juarez was to have taken place in El Paso and when she pointblank asks what the mission of the operation is, they won’t tell her.
That could be because she’s a woman. As I recall, she was the only woman at the Juarez briefing, which was swimming in so much testosterone, the funk of a men’s locker room practically wafted from the screen. And no one talked to Kate at the briefing except Alejandro, who remained cryptic, simply telling her to keep her eyes open. Later, when busloads of Mexicans are taken into custody and interrogated, the two men again refuse to tell Kate what they’re doing, but when her partner Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya), another FBI agent recruited for the interagency investigation, asks, they tell him.
Accordingly, Kate’s story gets shouldered out of the film by Alejandro’s. As it does, it becomes clear that Alejandro is the film’s sicario, at least in one sense of the word as it is defined at the beginning of the film: “In Mexico, sicario means hitman.” But he is also, in a very real sense, a product of the U.S. drug enforcement tactics we see acted out in the film, in which highly trained operatives bring to bear on the drug cartels advanced technology and weaponry of a scale that is as awesome as it is somewhat unbelievable. In fact, one of the movie’s most visually stunning sequences, of the many under the masterful eye of longtime Coen Brothers collaborator cinematographer Roger Deakins, is when U.S. operatives engage in a nighttime raid wearing heat sensitive and infrared goggles. So the drug lords develop retaliatory tactics that they feel are commensurate with scale of the force they face. In fact late in the film, a drug lord even angrily spits out that he got his savage tactics from the U.S.
In that context, the word sicario also reflects the other definition given at the beginning of the movie: “assassins or hired killers in Jerusalem who killed Roman soldiers.” The assasins, sicarii, named for the daggers with which they killed their targets, were members of an occupied people, the Jews of Judea, who were fighting against one of the most powerful and advanced militaries in the world. They used terror in an attempt to even the fight. As the might of America weighs down on the criminals just south of our border, resistance is encountered that strives to recreate the atrocities of war, inducing us to increase the force of our response, impelling a fiercer reply from the drug lords, all in the name of a war that rages under the guise of a police action.