A taut procedural thriller tinged with the trappings of the horror and war genres that shines a light on the relentlessly self-perpetuating logic of the war on drugs, Sicario is one of the best films of the year.
The film begins with the FBI raid of a home owned by one of the front men in America for a Mexican cartel. Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) leads the heavily armed feds in the no-knock smash-up, a bust that results in a disturbing discovery: the walls of the house are literally lined with corpses. Dozens of bodies—decomposing kidnapping victims and cartel enemies disposed of in the United States—are stacked behind the drywall.
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The grisly discovery, and the murder of two cops via a booby trap in the house of horrors’ backyard, leads American officials to escalate their campaign against the cartel. CIA agent Matt (Josh Brolin) taps Kate for an interagency task force designed to take the fight to the cartels. She thinks they’re trying to build a case to take the drug lords down. Matt and his quiet Colombian counterpart Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), on the other hand, simply want to cause a bit of chaos in order to rattle the cartel’s cage and get them to make a mistake.
To do that, they’ll need to discard with little things like "borders" and loosen the rules of the engagement. Director Denis Villeneuve takes us on a series of harrowing incursions into Mexican territory, the highlight of which follows a convoy of FBI agents, CIA spooks, and Delta Force operators heading into Juarez to acquire a cartel higher up and bring him back to the United States for some one-on-one time with Alejandro. It’s a bravura sequence, the best use of a column of SUVs in a drug-lord-ridden hell-scape since Clear and Present Danger.
Blunt plays the role of wide-eyed audience surrogate well. Almost too well, to be honest, given her status as a FBI vet who has gone on a series of drug busts. Macer doesn’t understand that the rules have changed as the violence has ticked upward. "Nothing will make sense to your American ears," Alejandro tells her as they journey into Juarez. "And you will doubt everything we do. But in the end, you will understand." As Matt explains later on, they are creating chaos and destabilizing the vicious cartels south of the border so as to instill order by ushering in a more reasonable band of murderous tycoons. Why? "Order’s the best we can hope for."
Sicario is the latest in a series of films to highlight the drug war’s mechanical nature. "You’re asking me how a watch works," Alejandro says at one point when Macer questions how the cartels operate. "For now, let’s just keep an eye on the time." His words are both dismissive and accurate. The simple fact of the matter is that heroin and cocaine will remain illegal even as weed joins alcohol as a thoroughly regulated by legally consumed substance. There is no will to legalize heroin, no desire to mainstream cocaine, no urge to loose the dealers and their gunmen from prison. But there’s also no stopping those who profit from addiction, those who fill their bodies with poison for a momentary release. The black market and the violence needed to regulate it will increase, and the cycle will continue.
The Counselor looked at this phenomenon with an unsparing eye in 2013. Directed by Ridley Scott and written by Cormac McCarthy, this tale of a lawyer who gets in over his head with the cartels after a drug deal goes bad wasn’t realistic, exactly—no human being has ever talked like Cormac McCarthy writes. But it was true in a deep way: The choices we make, it said, define who we are and what happens to us and there is no escaping them. They are like the bolito:
It has this small electric motor with this rather incredible compound gear that retrieves a steel cable. Battery-driven. The cable is made out of some unholy alloy, almost impossible to cut it, and it’s in a loop, and you come up behind the guy and drop it over his head and pull the free end of the cable tight and walk away. No one even sees you. Pulling the cable activates the motor and the noose starts to tighten and it continues to tighten until it goes to zero.
McCarthy also wrote the source novel for the Coen Brothers’ 2007 film about the drug war and its casualties, No Country for Old Men. This too was a film about action and reaction, consequences and the logic of fate. The concept was brought to life by Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), one of the great movie villains, a specter whose code compels him to kill a man’s wife because that man refused to surrender himself: "So this is what I'll offer—you bring me the money and I'll let her go. Otherwise she's accountable, same as you. That's the best deal you're gonna get. I won't tell you you can save yourself, because you can't."
Action and reaction, choice and consequence: these concepts thrive in a landscape where right and wrong have no meaning and only the will to power remains. Pity and hope? These things go to the desert to die.