In the heyday of the political thriller, which we will put as the 1970s for American cinema, ambiguities were often less moral in nature and more in terms of the extent of the problem. The Conversation, a masterpiece by the way, is ambiguous as to the exact nature and motivations of the forces ranged against poor old Harry Caul, but the film itself is less ambiguous about what it thinks of the culture of surveillance. We see the same questions of the nature of the crime and the criminals in The Parallax View and All The President’s Men. Those murky days were, ironically, a simpler time – the enemy was hidden and seemingly omnipotent, but they were not us. The films are never in doubt about what they felt were wrong with the world. Nowadays, however, this division is less clear, as are the films. Sicario sinks under some of the same issues that made something like Zero Dark Thirty such a hateful film.
Emily Blunt plays Kate Macer, an FBI agent recruited into a secret task force which aims to take down the leader of a Mexican cartel. Under Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and the mysterious Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), Kate is told to watch and learn. However, Matt and Alejandro may have other reasons for wanting Kate around, and they may not be trusted.
Sicario is a thriller about Mexican drug cartels, the American’s complicity in both the crimes and the general demand which funds and fuels the cartels, the moral ambiguities in policing across borders and outside the rules. It is a great-looking film, brilliantly shot by Roger Deakins, tightly directed by Denis Villeneuve and scored by Jóhann Jóhannsson. It moves at a good pace, which keeps it serious and largely engaging throughout (apart from a seriously poor coloured rubber band plot contrivance), a dense and complex plot that keeps you interested and some tough performances. It is effective, slightly shrill entertainment, with some fantastic, tense set pieces that largely hold the film together. As such, it is a very well made and watchable film. But…
Most political thrillers have a problem striking a decent balance between the complexity of their politic commentary and entertainment value. Sicario is dark and complex, even uncompromising, plot-wise, but it is hopelessly shallow in other ways. Its representation of Mexico is downright insulting – American agents casually climb to the roof of their compound on the Mexican border and watch gunfights and explosions in Mexico with binoculars. We do see short sequences detailing small aspects of American corruption (a few scenes) and complicity (one line), but we get a lot more focus on Americans getting the job done, state murder compared to finding a vaccine and talk of the ends justifying the means. Using Kate Macer as an audience surrogate, finding out as we do how the Mexican drug war ‘really’ works, the film makes its own world view clear. But since this is primarily a thriller, this world view is hopelessly inadequate to any real and true understanding of the problem and strongly stacks the deck to favour of the Americans as emotional identifiers for the audience. We are always standing on the American side of the border, looking at the Mexican drug war through the eyes of Americans. The film offers then a severe view of Mexico and a queasily ambiguous view of the Americans’ collusion with criminals and their willingness to break the rules. Where a fairer and more complex film might want to question this very American idea of the ends justifying the means, Sicario prefers to avoid this issue.
Sicario is a very well made film, but it remarkably shallow in terms of what it depicts. It is hard to work out what the film wants you to think of the Americans’ use of torture and their collusion with criminals who slaughter whole families. It represents this world as murky, dense and confusing, but does not dare offer an opinion, happy presumably that it is largely across the border and not here – a presumption that is self-serving and certainly not good enough. Where it should confront and shock but stand above the nastiness shown onscreen, Sicario instead remains mired in the same ambiguities as the film’s American characters. But when these ambiguities involve assassination and torture, that’s an uncomfortable place for a film of any sort to be.