Film Notes: The Problematic Beauty of Sicario

I had intended to see Sicario (2015) when it arrived in theaters. Classes, grading, paper revisions, and committee meetings got in the way, and by the time the semester had ended it was gone from cinemas. Recently, the film appeared on Netflix in Mexico, where I live. Sicario is visually striking. The camera pans across mountains that shape the landscape around El Paso and Juárez as a brooding score adds a sense of dread. Viewers familiar with the areas depicted in the film will notice many landmarks; UTEP along I-10 peeks out in the distance; there’s a beautiful view of the Parque Público Federal El Chamizal; the Santa Fe and Córdoba bridges feature prominently as set pieces, early on in the narrative.

Some have likened Sicario to an earlier drug war movie, Traffic (2000). The parallel is not entirely correct. Although this film sees Benicio del Toro reprise the role of a disillusioned Mexican law enforcement officer willing to blur the lines of what is right and wrong, the similarities end there. At other times, Sicario felt like a spiritual sequel to Zero Dark Thirty (2012). The cinematography is stylistic, plodding, and punctuated by bursts of intense violence. Actors depicting members of Delta Force figure prominently as they join a nihilistic and shadowy operator played by Josh Brolin, who carries out a mission in Juárez escorted by Mexican Federal Police. Like Zero Dark Thirty, it also justifies torturing informants. The narrative vehicle for the audience is embodied by Emily Blunt who plays a FBI hostage rescue specialist, channelling a sense of confusion and frustration at the events she sees once she agrees to join Brolin’s team in the aftermath of a difficult police raid in Arizona.

Once Sicario is in the thick of its narrative, it transforms into a kind of macabre Alice in Wonderland. The audience is brought down into the tunnels that cross beneath the U.S.-Mexican border. The camera switches to disorienting night-vision and thermal-vision tones of green, grey, black, and white. It is a looking glass onto a violent, otherworldly landscape. And there’s this growing sense of realization that, perhaps, Blunt’s character isn’t the focus of the film after all, and it has another story to tell us.

From an historical perspective, there is a deeper problem with this film. It is an ahistorical mash. A comic book story about cartels and killers that mixes time periods and provides little context to the viewer of the origins and reasons for the drug war. Soon after the film’s start, U.S. agencies, perhaps channeling General John J. Pershing, launch a coordinated punitive raid with Mexican federal counterparts against the Sonora cartel in response to an IED-style attack near Phoenix. Where did these guerrilla tactics come from? Where, and how, did the cartels accrue such power? Sicario is deafeningly silent about the American role in the drug war. Brolin’s character longs for the status quo ante of the 1980s, but this nightmare-cum-dream, too, is a red herring meant to confuse audiences. The film’s narrative is an ouroboros of violence and revenge.

Ultimately, the feeling coming out of Sicario is empty. Yes, it is expertly filmed and acted. Along the way, audiences are treated to solid performances, including by supporting actors, Daniel Kaluuya, Maximiliano Hernández, Jeffrey Donovan, and Jon Bernthal. Director Denis Villeneuve and cinematographer Roger Deakins capture the beauty and desolation of the natural landscape that stands in sharp contrast to the bustling cities and towns along the border.

The craftsmanship, however, does not negate the sense that the journey audiences follow through these arid scenes may simply lead to a dead end. The film does little to challenge stereotypes about this region; in fact, it steeps itself in violence, not as means to educate viewers, but rather to set the scene for the next bloody action sequence. Given the politics of perception around the U.S.-Mexico border, Sicario is counterproductive. The film does not adequately address the question it implicitly poses to the audience: how, if ever, can a resolution be reached to the social problems that affect the border when only violence begets violence?

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Sicario (2015) is distributed by Lionsgate and Black Label Media. Rated R.            Available on Blu-Ray and as a digital download.

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Categories: Essay Series | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on “Film Notes: The Problematic Beauty of Sicario

  1. Nice review Mike! I just got around to viewing this film as well and agree with your assessment of the film. The film reminded me of a John Wayne-styled western. Agreed, the cinematography is at times arresting, but the lack of context and immorality surrounding the contemporary US-Mex Drug War and US drug policy is virtually nonexistent. Only in fleeting moments is US culpability even suggested.

  2. Michael K. Bess

    David, thanks!

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