Sicario ★★★★★

A common misunderstanding surrounding Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario is that it is supposed to be "about" the War on Drugs. This has led to many glib dismissals of the film in some critical circles as something along the lines of a Traffic-lite with insufficient insight into the drug war. But debut actor-turned-screenwriter Taylor Sheridan is actually doing something quite novel—eschewing the tired “War on Drugs is bad” sentiment entirely and simply utilizing the drug war as a backdrop, in order to explore broader subjects such as U.S. interventionism and institutional corruption. It is a film that is more concerned with bringing our existing perspective of American ideals, foreign policy, and justice under scrutiny rather than examining the mechanics of the Mexican drug trade.

Sicario's plot tracks Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), an idealistic FBI agent who is routinely assigned clean-up duty for the aftermath of drug-related activities occurring within the United States. Due to her proficiency in the field, she is eventually recruited by an enigmatic, smarmy, flip-flop wearing man named Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) for a non-specific assignment. Matt and his mysterious companion Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) are the ringleaders of this shady operation, and their plan, at its most basic, is to find an elusive Mexican drug lord named Fausto Alarcon. Alejandro stresses the importance of the mission to Kate early on, saying “To find him would be like discovering a vaccine.” From then on, Villeneuve and Sheridan keep the plot deliberately vague and dole out major revelations sparingly, in order to simulate Kate’s frustrated and perpetually-in-the-dark perspective.

The character of Kate Macer arrives at an interesting period of time in cinema history, and provides a fascinating change of pace for Emily Blunt following her role as a feminist icon of sorts in both Looper and Edge of Tomorrow. Sicario, on the other hand, refuses to grant the audience the “kickass woman” experience we’ve become so accustomed to seeing in recent Hollywood films, and intentionally so. In the era of Furiosas and Reys, this film boldly sheds light on a woman’s experience in the workplace that is universal, uncomfortable to watch, and one that people would rather choose to ignore: A capable, strong woman who is suppressed and marginalized by men. It is a truly distressing thing to behold, and as Mike D’Angelo correctly argues, "the progressivism here is instead rooted in futility and despair".

Over the course of the mission, Kate endures a physical and mental battering from all sides. She is constantly reprimanded by Alejandro and Matt for “not seeing the bigger picture” simply because she wants to follow some semblance of procedure. At a bank, they catch a handful of people in the process of a money-laundering scheme for a drug boss who happens to be Fausto Alarcon’s right hand man. Kate immediately wants to gather the evidence they have and build a case against the man, but Matt and Alejandro have other plans. They need him to get called back to Mexico in order to reveal Fausto’s hiding place. Matt and Alejandro are entirely convinced that they are the “bigger picture” people in this scenario, and that Kate is well-intentioned, but ultimately out of her depth. The great irony is that they are the ones who don’t see the big picture, and that succumbing to corruption in order to kill one drug lord is not a “vaccine” at all.

This is where Sicario transcends the limitations of the crime thriller genre, and becomes a larger metaphor for modern U.S. foreign policy. The film openly suggests that the American “wolves” like Matt (special forces, CIA, DOJ) delude themselves into thinking they’re providing a “vaccine” and doing a service for these foreign nations by propping up bad people to defeat worse people, but the whole process is a never-ending cycle. These characters embark on a giant goose chase and abandon any sense of morality in order to kill a drug lord (which culminates in an almost unbearably tense scene with Del Toro), and think they’ve “won” once they dispose of him. But the chilling epilogue shows that no real change has been achieved — there’s more gunfire, and it can be assumed that another drug lord has replaced the dead one already.

Screenwriter Sheridan gets to the heart of modern American foreign policy: Meddling in other countries’ affairs, skirting the law in order to prop up bad people to depose dictators/bad people in power, and then declaring victory, when in reality, we’ve either created more chaos, handed the reigns over to an even greater evil, or accomplished nothing. Parallels can be drawn to our current situation in the Middle East, because this exact brand of short-sighted interventionism has become a long-standing American tradition. As author Alan Friedman said, in reference to when Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush helped prop up Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War, “We create these monsters, and then when it’s not convenient, we cover them up.”

Sicario depicts this decades-old strategy with unflinching honesty, while also offering itself to be enjoyed as a viscerally thrilling experience. It’s truly rare to find a thriller that delivers in spades in regard to technical craft and excitement (the impeccably staged border sequence is the highlight here), but also demonstrates a keen understanding of the very nature of U.S. foreign policy. It's a refreshing reminder that modern thrillers can be smart without sacrificing entertainment value, and vice-versa.