“Sicario” is the third in a troika of first-rate films opening in our movie theaters ths first weekend of October. (The others are “The Walk” and “The Martian.”) Movie opening weekends seldom get much better.
The film immediately tells us that the word “Sicario” means “hitman” in Mexico. By the time Denis Villeneuve’s film ends, you’ll know what the title truly means.
But then that’s what the film itself promises its heroine, a successful FBI agent (Emily Blunt) recruited for a task force to combat the horrors inflicted by the drug war on the Mexican border. That will happen when an agent comes upon a house in Arizona full of expected drug dealers and 42 unexpected dead bodies hidden in the walls.
A mysterious and viciously soft-spoken task force operative from Mexico (Benicio DelToro) tells her that first day with them “nothing will make sense to your American ears” when she crosses the border with them from El Paso into Juarez. “In the end, you will understand.”
So she does by film’s end. So does the audience for Denis Villeneuve’s ultra-violent and relentlessly dark thriller. It’s a film in which we see, in one scene, a violent firefight inside a tunnel meant to carry drugs from Mexico into Arizona. The cops during the gun battle wear night vision goggles.
The entire movie was filmed in the moral equivalent of night vision goggles. The line where lawlessness ends and “order” begins is so smudged over as to be indistinguishable.
And that’s the dramatic function of the new recruit into the mysterious task force – to pay moral witness to what has happened on the border between nations which exists on a different border – that between right and wrong.
All that we know watching it is that it has become an invitation to a lot more than palaver from presidential candidates. In this film, there’s no joking around about it. It’s irredeemably violent and just as irredeemably sinister.
When our heroine first encounters Ciudad Juarez after crossing the bridge from El Paso, she sees mutilated corpses hanging from tree trestles while children play nearby. She hears gunfire and is pointedly told it’s not “firecrackers.” It’s a routine sound in Juarez, a place where the new recruit is told “keep an eye out for the state police. They’re not always the good guys.”
The fed who recruited her works, she’s told at first, for the DOD (Department of Defense.) Other multinational initials become prominent. That fed is played by Josh Brolin with a constant cobra smile that is almost as chilling as Del Toro’s creepily courtly quietude.
Soon, she’s protesting to her new peers “your just spray bullets. I’m not a soldier.”
She remains with her new colleagues anyway. And learns far more firsthand than anyone could want to.
They’re there, in one sense, to “shake the tree and create chaos” for the Mexican drug cartels. But it’s the goal beyond that one that makes this vision of the border drug wars so powerful.
This is far from new territory in the last 15 years. Roberto Bolano’s great novel “The Savage Detectives” is about some very real serial killings in Juarez that took place with its drug war lawlessness as a backdrop.
The decent, if short-lived, TV series “The Bridge” was about law enforcement on both sides of the bridge between El Paso and Juarez.
Until now, the movies have never given us a vision of it all as powerful as this one brought to us by Villeneuve, the Quebecois director of the remarkable “Enemy” and “Prisoners
Trying to find the leader of a cartel, says Del Toro, is like “finding a vaccine.”
Except that as this film sees it, the vaccine itself requires a vaccine.
In this drug war, life itself seems the disease.
A powerful film, one of the year’s best.
3 1/2 stars (Out of four)Starring Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, and Benicio Del Toro. Directed by Denis Villeneuve. Rated R for much violence, grisly imagery and rough language. 121 minutes.