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Sicario is a thriller about the hunt for a cartel boss set in the badlands of the US-Mexico border area

Sicario: an atmospheric thriller with great performances & a hawkish political message

In the absence of a credible Islamic threat to America after 9/11, Latin American drug cartels have become Hollywood’s bogeyman of choice. A veritable cottage industry has spawned around this theme, producing top-notch movies, TV shows, and documentaries like End of Watch, Narcos, and Cartel Land, respectively. Sicario follows in this tradition, and holds its own admirably.

Set in the badlands of the US-Mexico border, where Mexican drug cartels and US security forces are engaged in an interminable war, Sicario (hitman in Spanish) is a thinking man’s thriller that maintains a constant sense of foreboding while displaying political consciousness. The tone of the movie evokes director Dennis Villenueve’s previous offerings, the disappearance thriller Prisoners and the French drama Incendies, which kept the viewer fidgeting in her seat with horror and unease.

It features a stellar ensemble cast. Josh Brolin plays Matt Graver, a smug high-level US official leading an operation to nail a cartel boss using morally questionable means; Emily Blunt is the haggard-looking Kate Macer, a conscientious but clueless local official recruited into Graver’s team; and the ever-dependable Benicio Del Toro plays Alejandro, an enigmatic man with a dubious past capable of striking terror with just one forbidding look.

While the final objective of their mission is simple enough – determining the location of a cartel jefe in Mexico – the plot chronicles the convoluted measures adopted by the team to circumvent legal and ethical hurdles, many to Macer’s indignation. In doing so, the shifty covert nature of the ‘war on drugs’ is revealed, exposing a lawless ‘land of wolves’ where procedure means naught, and nothing is as it seems.

Extrajudicial killings and torture are the order of the day, and the cartels, with their vast reserves of cash, have invaded every institution, including the police and the banks. In one scene, Del Toro equates the cartels to a lethal disease. “To find him [the cartel boss] would be like discovering a vaccine,” he says. The United States, on its part, uses non-state actors to achieve its ends in foreign lands.

The action is sparse and surgical, never mindless. However, the subtle glorification of the ‘brave’ men fighting this illegal war is unmistakable. Tension is built up using ominous music that swells and subsides effectively. The cinematography by Roger Deakins is masterful. Using aerial shots of the desolate Mexican landscape, the portentous urban sprawl of Juarez, and orderly American freeways, Deakins does a noteworthy job of evoking despair in the viewer’s mind, reminiscent of his previous work with the Coen Brothers’ No Country For Old Men.

However, the film messes up with its depiction of Mexico, which is unfairly stereotyped as a hellish place characterized by bumpy roads, street graffiti, photos of missing women on the walls, and mutilated bodies hanging off flyovers. In response, the real-life mayor of Juarez has issued a call to boycott the movie.

The plot is slow to unfold, but the script commands the viewer’s attention, punctuated by well-shot action sequences. The performances are splendid. Emily Blunt exhibits some fine acting chops in portraying the tormented idealistic Macer, her subdued on-the-edge mannerisms perfectly reflect the moral dilemma facing her character. Del Toro plays Alejandro with the perfect combination of menace and detachment, his dead eyes and unerring bullets rendering arguments futile. Josh Brolin is unremarkable, one can’t avoid the feeling he’s playing himself in all his movies.

The movie’s explosive climax is a bit contrived, veering into dramatic territory out of sync with the movie’s gritty tone. The epilogue is dark: the illegalities of the hunt for the cartel boss are completely scrubbed away, hinting at the continued perpetuation of this drug war, waged by cynical officials who have long reconciled to its ‘unwinnability’, and are willing to use any means available. As Gracer tells Macer in one scene, “Unless you can convince 20% of the [United States] population to stop snorting and smoking that stuff, order is the best we can hope for.”

Ultimately, the political message of the movie is hawkish, in line with its protagonists’ moral flexibility. It suggests that well-contained state-sponsored violence is essential to keep the war from escalating. Sicario paints the war on drugs as one without a solution: an endless treadmill where heads have to roll for things to remain in the same position. The truth may not be very far.