SICARIO WE ARE told, in this heart-stoppingly gripping movie of the same name, was the term given to the insurgents, the freedom fighters, during the Roman Empire. It’s also Mexican slang for hit-man. Alejandro (Benecio del Toro) and his boss, Matt (Josh Brolin) the titular sicarios of the movie, live in this grey world where the noble mission of halting the drug trade veers into a murky world of extra-legal collusions, assassinations and revenge.
We follow the story from the eyes of a courageous, idealistic, but naive Kate (Emily Blunt) who, angered by the bizarre and fatal turn of events on a mission she’s recently led, allows herself to volunteer for a more dangerous mission- to find a people smuggling pipeline and bring to justice the leaders.
At least that’s how she sees it.
As she slowly realizes however, this isn’t about Mexicans crossing the border, this isn’t even about justice. This is a darker mission about bringing down one of the many drug lords. Her new boss and ‘mentor’, the laconic, amoral Matt (a tough, weather-beaten Brolin) jokes that the aim of the mission is to “dramatically overreact”. And to accomplish this, Matt is armed with Alejandro, an emotionally wounded man turned attack dog, whose personal mission is one of single-minded vengeance. His is a ruthless take no prisoners approach that means nothing and no-one, not even Kate, will stand in his way.
Canadian director Denis Villeneuve (“Prisoners”) leads us through the story from Kate’s perspective. She, like us, slowly piece together what the real mission is, without ever really understanding who her colleagues (backed up by a mini battalion of Afghanistan trained mercenaries, who seem to be paid by whatever drugs they seize) are. They may be DEA or CIA. Who knows? At one point she’s told, “nothing will make sense to your American ears, and you will doubt everything that we do, but in the end you will understand”. What she does come to realize is that she’s joined a team that has no compunction about crossing the border and waging war in Mexico, where the demarcation between the police and their prey, between the good guys and the bad is, like the border, ever shifting.
The philosophical construct Villeneuve offers is the existential conundrum: play by the rules and the war on drugs will never be won. Break the rules – which means murder, torture or at best collusion – and you’ll stand a better chance of success… at the price of your moral conscience.
“Sicario” has the nerve biting, muscular tension of the best of Michael Mann. The score of composer Jóhan Jóhannsson (“Foxcatcher”, “Prisoners”) – all low notes and frenzied electronics – and the cinematography of Roger Deakin (“Skyfall”, “Ture Grit”) – flat, at times over lit, at times dark and brooding (he’s considered one of the three best cinematographers around) lend the movie a sense of unrelenting dread. You get a sense that even the land and the elements are threats.
Brolin and Blunt (who was the best thing about “Edge of Tomorrow”) are a solid, compelling duo.
But the stand out performance is that of Benecio del Toro’s. His Alejandro is no one-dimensional killer. He’s clearly a wounded man with a warmth and paternal protectiveness which his job and his past must mothball. These are not the times for gentleness and caring. As he tells Kate, “you are not a wolf. And this is a land of wolves”. He has become, despite himself, a wolf. Del Toro’s triumph is that he allows us to see the dark symbiosis of the sicario…the nobility and fearlessness of the freedom fighter and the savagery of the hit-man.
“Sicario” is a slickly directed action movie placed in service of a serious look at quagmire of the drug trade. In the end, as the cynical Matt (Brolin) observes, until the 20% of the American public who want the drugs, curtail their needs, the war will never be won.