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September 25, 2015

You can always trust Denis Villeneuve to bring the suspense. In 2013’s Prisoners and Enemy, he delves deep into the dark side of human nature, and cranks the tension way up. Sicario has the tension we’ve come to suspect, but it ultimately lacks the depth or insight that it wants to claim.

“Sicario”, as we’re told right off, is a Mexican term for “hitman”, and places us right away into the cartel-controlled territory on the U.S.-Mexico border. A police tank crashes through a front door, just like the opening of Straight Outta Compton, but this time we’re assured that it’s totally justified. A team of FBI and local law enforcement led by Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) and backed up by Reggie Wayne (Daniel Kaluuya) are chasing down abduction victims. They don’t find the people they’re looking for, but a shotgun blast reveals the first of dozens of bodies they discover rotting in the walls. Drywall evidently does a really good job of insulating smells, I guess. Oh, and while the crime lab goes over the scene a booby-trapped tool shed explodes and takes out two cops.

It’s all very shocking; we understand that the Sonora cartel are really bad guys. So when Kate’s boss introduces her to a pair of men who offer a chance to get to the men who are truly, ultimately responsible for these horrors, she cautiously accepts. Matt (Josh Brolin) is somehow attached to the Department of Defense. His “consultant”, Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), used to be a prosecutor in Juárez, but his current affiliation remains shrouded. “Cartagena”, he intones ominously at one point.

This feels like it should be some sort of paramilitary police procedural, but we’re never told enough to understand what’s going on. Then again, neither is Kate; the reason behind her involvement is eventually revealed, but it’s unsatisfying. First-time writer Taylor Sheridan embraces the same hardline sheep/wolves/sheepdogs worldview that Eastwood played up in American Sniper, and with about the same amount of consideration for the brown people on the other side of the conflict. The only two vaguely sympathetic Mexicans we see are little more than collateral damage to the eventual punishment of a low-level cartel pawn.

The borderlands, we are told, are a place where the rule of law has disintegrated. Mexico is all but a lost cause — the makers of Cartel Land at least offer some nuance in this direction — so any and all measures taken by our own government are justified in preventing our own border cities from going the same way. And it’s all ultimately our fault for doing so many drugs and feeding this black market. Of course, nobody questions why the market is black in the first place; that the cause of the violence may actually be the money that follows in the wake of criminalization and prohibition, rather than the demand itself.

And so Sicario positions itself as a warning: stand back and let the protectors of the moral order crack what skulls need to be cracked. Totalitarian power is the only law left in this fallen place, and things like checks and balances are niceties for the sheep to bleat about elsewhere. It’s Cormac McCarthy without the humanity, with Jóhann Jóhannsson’s dark drumbeats activating our fearful lizard-brains to receive the message: despair and flee, and let the strong men do their job without your concern for rights and liberties.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.

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