French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve’s newest film opens by informing the audience that the word “sicario” is not just a modern term for a hitman, but also a word dating back to Ancient Rome. The Sicarii, roughly translated as “dagger-men”, were a group of Jewish extremists who fought against the Roman occupation of Judea. The Sicarii viewed Roman rule akin to idolatry and slavery. Due to their fervent love of freedom and belief that only God could be accepted as their master, they pledged to submit to even the most horrible of deaths and to see their relations and friends tortured rather than accept human domination. Their favored method of assassination was to use concealed weapons to kill political opponents during festivals in order to create chaos and avoid identification. I think it’s safe to say that these methods have been used by thousands of different groups for different purposes ever since. Villeneuve doesn’t draw out any more of a conclusion about the similarities between The Sicarii and the sicarios employed by Central American drug cartels, leaving the past in the past to focus heavily on the modern world, in particular the decades since the fall of the Colombian Medellin Cartel.
Written by Taylor Sheridan, directed by Villeneuve, and starring stars Emily Blunt, Benicio del Toro and Josh Brolin, “Sicario” begins with a bang. Blunt plays driven, capable and idealistic F.B.I. agent Kate Macer, who in the first scene watches her kidnap-response team get taken out by a booby-trapped house of horrors. The promise of bringing the cartel responsible to justice is how she’s recruited to join a special-ops task force run by a flip-flop wearing “fratboy intelligence spook, played by Josh Brolin as a human shit-eating-grin”. The informality with which the situation is handled is jarring. In something that is so high stakes, and which our government claims to take so seriously, it is initially hard as the viewer to believe that anyone could be so laissez-faire. Kate volunteers for this task force with next to no information. It’s pretty clear from the get-go that the need-to-know rule doesn’t apply to Kate and the fewer questions she asks the better. This doesn’t stop her from trying, especially where Benicio del Toro’s mysterious “Alejandro” is concerned. Introduced as nothing more than an informant, Kate attempts to decipher not only who he is and what he’s doing on the task force, but more importantly what is the real purpose of the task force and do the ends really justify the means.
Kate serves as the audience member surrogate. We discover information as she does. While her naivete can occassionally feel tedious, her stubborn idealism is important in a film full of cynicism. And her vulnerability in the face of the dark reality she meets is masterfully portrayed by Blunt. Kate’s vulnerability does not feel like weakness, as she is extremely intelligent and very good at her job, which I appreciated. It’s hard to ignore that Kate is the only woman trying to work in a boy’s club, but the film doesn’t assume anything about her based on her gender. Her vulnerability does not come from being a woman, but instead from wanting the world to be better than it is.
I’m not even going to bother trying to describe Benicio del Toro’s performance, who managed to be mysterious, ominous, at times terrifying, and strangely tender. I’m not suprised to hear that there is a sequel currently in the works, which is going to center on Alejandro. Like any good monster’s origins, Alejandro’s are not spelled out other than through hints of a tragedy that killed the man within. Without giving much away, I can say that my absolute favorite scene from the film is one between Blunt and del Toro, whose chemistry is so strong as to be slightly discomforting, Alejandro carresses Kate’s face as he holds a gun under her chin. What makes it so strange is that both Kate and the audience are fully aware of how little he would regret pulling the trigger. As she looks at him with desperation, resignation and hatred…hatred towards him for making her feel this weak and for making her give up on what she believes…hatred towards herself for not being able to hate him completely…Alejandro tells her:
“You will not survive here. You are not a wolf. And this is the land of wolves now.”
It is not clear what “here” means to Alejandro. The border between the U.S. and Mexico? The F.B.I.? The United States? The entire hemisphere? But you can see that Alejandro doesn’t mean this as a threat, but a kindness. A warning he was unable to give to a loved one before.
“Sicario” is both intimidating and tender, leaving you vulnerable and shaken with it’s gruesome intelligence, jarringly ominous music, and clever shots of life juxtaposed with death, earth with concrete, children’s soccer games interrupted by not-distant-enough automatic rifles firing, foreign with domestic, action with torpor. The boundaries that you hold to be undeniable truths are shown to be nothing more than curtains…thin veils that obscure what’s on the other side, limiting passage between two spaces but not ceasing it, hiding everything and yet stopping nothing. Kate learns not only that “the boundaries have been moved”, but they may never have existed at all. I give “Sicario” The Taste Maven Stamp of Approval.