America’s “war on drugs” is a seemingly never-ending one, a battle with dubious legal grounds and costly international military deployment – yet ever since 1975, 85% of US high school students still claimed marijuana was easy to obtain (this figure has remained virtually unchanged for four decades). Like so many of the pipe dreams created under Richard Nixon’s tenure as US president, the war on drugs is a failure, yet one which moral grounds refuse to ever let end, even with the unmoral ways of fighting back against the manufacture and distribution of these illegal goods. This costly failure, combined with the willing to break the law to get results, is still keenly felt in American society today; two of the most beloved TV series of the new millennium deal with the war on drugs on US soil. From The Wire’s exploration of drugs infecting Baltimore’s most deprived suburbs to Breaking Bad’s depiction of the capitalistic gains of cooking meth, TV has provided utterly bleak, yet utterly compelling, insights into something incredibly depressing.
Even if the casting of Benico Del Toro, star of director Steven Soderbergh’s turn of the millennium drug-culture expose Traffic, suggests something in the same tainted, politically biting veins, Canadian director Denis Villeneuve’s take on the war on drugs is far closer to TV depictions of the battle against this industry. Villeneuve takes his time telling this story, with his action sequences always playing out of context, so you are as in the dark about the truths and motivations behind this war against the Mexican cartels as many of the people enlisted to help stop them.
What sets Sicario apart from The Wire, Breaking Bad and Traffic is Villeneuve’s nationality; as a French-Canadian director, he doesn’t have the same emotional attachments to the political subtexts of the story as the American creators/directors of the films and shows listed above. This clinical detachment ensures he doesn’t bother hand-wringing against a political subject that doesn’t fully translate as an issue in his home country – instead, he has fun exploring the moral ambiguities and compromises people have to make, combining them with some of the most thrilling action sequences of the year. He has made a movie about an ever-present political issue that doesn’t have a political agenda of its own.
The movie opens in Arizona, as FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) helps lead a kidnapping raid that proves fatal – an explosive is found in the back garden shed, exploding and leading to the death of two officers. Inside the house, dozens of corpses are found hung up in-between the walls of the houses. Naturally, this makes national news and begins a bureaucratic nightmare for Macer and her FBI partner (Daniel Kaluuya) as she is asked to leave her post behind to help the CIA search for the people responsible, who are senior figures in the Mexican cartel. She is going to be under the guidance of CIA advisor Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), a laid-back guy who will happily wear sandals to significant security briefings, as well as Alejandro Gillick (Del Toro), a man whose interrogation techniques include giving suspects wet willies, as well as penis-based threats that are mercifully kept off screen. After a brief international soiree to Juarez to interrogate a prisoner, the cartel are onto them and attempt to take them out when trapped in a traffic jam. These cartel members are in turn taken out, leading Macer to realise she isn’t helping stop the war on drugs, but is instead now part of a game with no rules and whose purpose is never fully clear.
Denis Villeneuve is a director whose signature style is only becoming apparent now, even if I have been a fan of his previous movies. Sicario essentially builds on the promise of Prisoners in that he’ll take his international arthouse schtick into the Hollywood mainstream, making Hollywood conform to his way of filmmaking rather than the other way round. I’ve only seen Prisoners once due to the fact its emotional hysteria and oppressive nature is hard to sustain multiple viewings; yet if Prisoners uncompromisingly dealt with raw parental emotion (which his last French language movie, the dour drama Incendies, tackled far better), Sicario is emotionally detached to a level that demands repeat viewings.
This isn’t a typical police procedural where those involved become obsessed with the case and it becomes all consuming, like Prisoners, but rather one where even those involved with the case have no idea what is going on, leading for their objectives and ideals to become confused and intertwined to the point of incompetency. It is a subversion of action movie tropes – as Hollywood becomes more open to the ideal of a female action hero, Villeneuve restricts his leading lady to be nothing more than a woman with one foot behind bureaucratic red-tape and one foot into a war she doesn’t understand. Sicario doesn’t have a typical Hollywood narrative where her way of working sends a shock to the system. Instead, she is utterly useless by playing to a set of rules, refusing to be drawn into the boys club who are equally causing more problems than solutions.
As the film becomes more action-oriented, it develops a sense of unpredictability – what occurs is a lot more thrilling, not to mention shocking, when the rules of the game are constantly being changed. Even as Macer becomes increasingly marginalised in her own story, the film never loses its way; in fact, by gradually bumping up Del Toro to lead actor status by the time the end credits roll, it gets thrillingly bonkers, with the actor’s sinister, understated performance suggesting a war on drugs anti-hero in the same vein as Walter White (albeit on the other side of the law). Throughout, the movie looks beautiful thanks to cinematography from the ever brilliant Roger Deakins; if you’ve ever seen corpses hung up underneath a motorway suspension bridge looking more breathtaking than they do here, I’ll be mightily surprised. It is a treat for the eyes constantly, even if the narrative leaves you feeling cold and frustrated at times, albeit deliberately.
Sicario is an anti-action movie, one that is as likely to piss off audiences as it is to entertain them. Its a slow burning movie that doesn’t provide any easy answers, but repeat viewings are likely to prove as addictive as the drugs that are being exported.