Sicario (2015)

First published by Real Crime

As text explains at the beginning of Denis Villeneuve’s latest film, the word ‘sicario’ is now used in Mexico to denote a ‘hitman’, but comes originally from the zealots of Jerusalem, murderously opposed to the “Romans who invaded their homeland.” Accordingly, Sicario opens with a different homeland under invasion, as an FBI raid on a corpse-filled, booby-trapped house in Phoenix, Arizona reveals the extent of the Mexican drug cartels’ cross-border advances into the American heartland. Yet what Villeneuve chooses to show first is the violent assault on the building by a SWAT team (who literally ram an armoured van through its wall, and go in shooting). Here, as with Villeneuve’s previous Enemy (2013), we know from the outset what the title means, but are less than certain to whom it is meant to refer.

In fact, much of Sicario is focused on US incursions into Mexican territory (rather than the other way round). FBI agent Kate Mercer (Emily Blunt) is tricked by shady ‘Department of Justice’ operations leader Matt (Josh Brolin) into serving as voluntary liaison on a subversive special operation of questionable legality that brings direct to the cartels the very worst American practices from the Middle East – torture, double-dealing with the enemy’s enemy, extra-judicial counter-terrorism and cold-blooded murder (with much collateral damage). Here the metaphorical ‘war on drugs’ is depicted with all the iconography of an actual (covert) war. “To dramatically overreact” is how Matt describes the objective of his mission, as he sets about spreading brutal chaos through a cartel’s power structure. Along for the ride, and kept in reserve for the dirtiest work, is Matt’s ‘bird dog’ Alejandro (Benicio del Toro) – an ambiguous former prosecutor from Colombia still looking for a kind of justice.

“Nothing will make sense to your American ears, and you will doubt everything that we do,” Alejandro tells Kate, “but in the end, you will understand.” Certainly DP Roger Deakins offers the broadest perspective on the drug war’s Byzantine workings, shooting landscapes wide and often from a ‘God’s-eye’ aerial point of view – although atrocities are mostly kept beyond the periphery of the shot. The result is a tense, taut action thriller that also serves as a bleak allegory of America’s many clandestine operations and dirty wars, driven more by the rules of vendetta than the laws of the land.

Anton Bitel