It is possible to make a good film about the drug war, but Sicario is not that.
Denis Villeneuve’s 2015 film Sicario was widely praised for its rousing score, gorgeous cinematography and its line-walking script creating a morally-ambiguous tale about the US role in the Mexican drug war. On the first two points, Sicario’s greatness is unimpeachable; Jóhann Jóhannsson’s music is pitch-perfect and the inimitable Roger Deakins photographs the desert as arrestingly here as he did for No Country for Old Men. Regarding the third point of praise, however, Sicario and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan need to be taken to task. The script is far from “morally ambiguous” and indeed is blatantly misogynist, gleefully ignorant about the drug-related violence in Mexico it is supposedly exploring at its central topic and is outrageously unrealistic. It is a shame that such beautiful sound and visuals were created in service to a story that is so ugly.
The drug war, as portrayed here, is the whet dream of the hyper-masculine right-wing sabre-rattlers populating security agencies across the United States. All species of butchery are permitted for the ATF, CIA, FBI, DEA and police who have to deal with the cartels, be it torture, assault or even extrajudicial murder. The spectacles at the heart of the film’s set pieces are centered on the inhumanity of the cartels and the implicit message is that such messy business excuses US security forces getting their hands dirty/bloody in turn. Sicario is the sort of film produced by a country who elects a man who called Mexicans “rapists” and Salvadorans “animals” President.
The plot happens around Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), a woefully-undertrained (it seems) FBI agent working drug trafficking in the Mexico-Arizona borderlands. Sicario consistently degrades Kate, who functions as a veritable compendium of feminine gender stereotypes: she is weak, squeamish, hesitant, emotional and just too willing to follow the rules. In the world of Sicario, rules are bad things, there to constrain heroic men from doing what needs to be done. Kate’s character arc slowly involves her moving from reluctance to engage the cartels in the only way that makes sense—ultraviolence unfettered from standard demands of human dignity—to acceptance that such violations are only possible method to combat the flow of drugs.
What makes the excesses and medieval identity politics of Sicario more glaring than similar recent “serious” but also right-leaning US films like Zero Dark Thirty and American Sniper is the disturbingly low level of knowledge it has about the events it is supposedly covering. At least Kathryn Bigelow had some inside information and a real (and actually ambiguous) perspective; Sicario, on the other hand, never moves beyond the level of cable news in engaging with the realities of the drug war. In one scene, Macer, supposedly a trained FBI agent, uses a Google search to find out just how terrible the violence in Mexico is. Forget the implausibility of an agent in the field not knowing anything at all about Mexico (or Spanish, for that matter); focus instead on how Macer’s character is here standing in for the filmmakers, who are equally clueless about Mexico.
Sicario’s posturing that it is neutral—it resides in the “gray” area of ambiguities rather than in the black-and-white of absolutes—is equally frustrating because it is utter nonsense. The film’s message is clear: the carteleros are vicious and the US security forces are constrained by law and decency, so to keep US citizens safe from the monsters across the border those same security forces need to be allowed to work outside legal boundaries. Yet, it wants the credibility and legitimacy that comes from being even-handed, too, just as it wants some bonus points for having a female lead, even though it brutalizes and humiliates her in nearly every scene. The major conflict in the film is precisely a battle of the sexes where male win-at-all-costs gusto finally wins out against female reticence. Blunt deserves better, and so do viewers.
It is possible to make a good film about the drug war, as is made clear by El Sicario, Room 164. But Sicario is not that, which would be acceptable if not for the fawning film critics who have relentlessly (and nigh unanimously, though there are admirable hold-outs) extolled how fully it captures the intricate complexities and contradictions of the War on Drugs circa 2015. Refreshingly, it seems this summer’s sequel, Sicario: Day of the Soldado, is diving into the full-testosterone action set pieces of the original rather than the faux-deep political commentary that made some proclaim the original as serious fare, so there will not be any of the performative celebrating from critics about how nuanced the sequel is. This time around, Sheridan and company are throwing nuance out the window so that the explosions are not constrained by story, which is precisely what the 2015 original did while still taking credit for being even-handed.