There are many iconic moments in SICARIO, but the one that sticks in my mind is the one where dedicated and upright FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is being given the lowdown from glib and slippery DOJ agent Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) about what winning the war on drugs will really entail. The camera frames them in a medium long shot, with the stars and stripes waving vigorously above and behind them. What she is being told is not a lie, but it’s also not the whole truth, and that continues throughout this electrifying film. As presented here, governments operate in a moral shadowland, and one is put in mind of Lord Palmerston’s musings, paraphrased as there are no permanent national allies, only permanent national interests.
Kate has just crossed the border into Mexico in order to fetch the brother of a drug lord. She had been told the mission was in the El Paso area, and so it was, and by the time she realized that imperious line of black SUVs in which she was to travel was heading across the border, she found it impossible to refuse to go along. One small step, as they say, off the straight and narrow can have enormous consequences. That Kate is tough, as established in the first sequence, wherein she invades the house where hostages are reportedly held. Invades literally. Her truck takes down the front wall, and the subsequent discovery, grisly beyond comprehension, gives her the impetus to not just volunteer to help the DOJ get the man behind the carnage, but also explains why her heretofore unimpeachable ethical standards become malleable. Her aggressive objections become more and more quiescent, but they are never quite silenced, even as her paranoia, perfectly justified, about what is actually happening, and why she is there, grows exponentially.
Denis Villeneuve’s film, told with an almost procedural simplicity, maintains a biting edge of uneasiness. Victims become victimizers, and vice-versa, with a terrifying fluidity and with a level of violence that is all the more unsettling for not being seen. The overhead shot of a water bottle placed by a drain takes on an unspeakably ominous quality for the cold precision of its placement contrasted with how we know both items will be used. Even the landscapes, the hot, alien desert of the border between Mexico and the United States take on a sinister quality, mountains seems to reach out with evil intent, chasms are like mouths screaming in anger or in anguish.
At the heart of the film is Alejandro (Benicio del Toro), the mysterious man in a white suit who accompanies Kate and Matt everywhere. He has nightmares where he dozes off, and sad eyes when he tells Kate that what she will see will make no sense at first with her American eyes. He is tender and he is cold, the enigma that is as fascinating as he is disconcerting. Del Toro, precise but never calculating, has never been more enthralling.
Kate, in baggy t-shirt, baggier pants, and indifferent army boots, is the innocent of the piece, a fierce combatant who is tough, but not yet hardened, for whom cynicism extends only to her recent divorce. Blunt is perfect. She never confuses fear with weakness. She saves Kate’s vulnerability, what little there is, for heart-to-hearts initiated by her junior partner (Daniel Kaluuya), who tells her the truth about needing to groom her eyebrows and put herself out there romantically. Or trembling in the shower as she washes blood out of her hair.
SICARIO is a complex, brutal tale of the war on drugs and the effect it cuts across wide swaths of humanity on both sides of the border. In this nihilist dystopia, the good guys and the bad guys are indistinguishable in their tactics, and barely differentiated by their motives or their methods. This is not a place for ideals, only results by any means necessary; a place where the most dangerous people are those with either nothing to lose, or everything.