Movie Review: ‘Sicario’ an unusual, haunting success

“Nothing will make sense to your American ears, and you will doubt everything that we do, but in the end you will understand,” says Alejandro Gillik (Benicio del Toro) to Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) at the beginning of their mission. In “Sicario,” the viewer follows Kate Macer across the border and into the new and morally corrupt arena of border politics. “Sicario” represents a new sort of film for a new sort of world, one with no distinct right or wrong, one which leaves the viewer with more questions answers. But Sicario does fulfill Alejandro’s promise.

“Sicario” starts with an FBI investigation into a kidnapping case. As idealist agent Kate Macer searches for hostages held by cartel boss, Manuel Diaz and instead finds something far more horrifying; dozens of bodies, bagged and brutalized, hidden in the walls of an Arizona home and explosives stored in a nearby van. This triggers a series of events which leads her to El Paso and CIA agent Matt Graver, and his mysterious partner Alejandro. As Kate crosses into Mexico, she encounters horrifying sights and corrupted people which will lead her to question everything she’s been trained to do.

“Sicario” is unusual for a myriad reasons, one of the most prominent is its female protagonist, Kate Macer. “It’s almost unheard of,” says film professor Robert Sickels, who taught this film as part of his class, “and when you do see it, they’re rarely different from standard male action heroes.” Kate is one of the most well rounded female characters on screen this year; strong, but vulnerable and capable, yet deeply troubled. She stands in stark contrast to Alejandro, the invulnerable hitman, often crumbling in the face of the terrifying situations she encounters. The viewer can sympathize with her, and she brings some much needed humanity to the film, firmly grounding it in reality. 

Despite having what many would consider a “strong” female protagonist the film does not pass the Bechdel test. Alison Bechdel, who visited this campus on Oct. 23, pioneered this test with her friend Liz Wallace. The test itself is a popular yet controversial method of detecting whether a film is empowering for women; in order to pass the test the film requires two female characters who talk to each other about something other than a man. “Sicario ” only features one prominent female character, Kate, and therefore cannot pass the test.

However this may prove to be an advantage, rather than a deficit to the film. “The fact that there’s only one female character in this movie is not so much the problem as it is the point,” says Sickels. The fact Kate is the only female character highlights the real life problem which faces female law enforcement, and the vulnerability which stems from it. “I would argue that in that context”, states Sickels, “she probably wouldn’t have that much agency.” “Sicario” does not idealize the world of cartel control and chooses instead to highlight the corruption which pervades this dark underworld.

This unusual formula has served “Sicario” well. “It’s actually been very successful financially and has had an unusually long run”, says Sickels, “it is the unusual film which appeals to adults, it doesn’t appeal to that standard 12 to 18 market window.” The film has already generated Oscar buzz for Del Toro and Blunt’s masterful performances and Denis Villenueve’s directing.

The stands out as something special among the big-budget action films which dominated theaters this year. Chris Ryan of “Grantland” has even gone as far as calling this film the “Apocalypse Now” of the Drug War, a defining film of a generation. But this comparison isn’t entirely apt. “More people were more interested on a regular basis in what was going on [in Vietnam], whereas as concerns this film a lot of people are capable of completely disregarding the Drug War,” Sickels said.

In many ways “Sicario” is introducing audiences to something Americans are desperate to forget, and in that way it is like “Apocalypse Now,” a powerful antiwar film which is impossible to forget. “I think that there’s an idea that it doesn’t affect you,” says Sickels, “that it happens over there to someone else, but so much of the Cartel’s profit comes from marijuana, and so many people buy illegal marijuana in the U.S.” This film brings the Drug War to America’s front door and into the very walls of its homes.   

There’s something about “Sicario” which lingers around long after you’ve seen it and it’s this haunting quality which makes it so special. As we follow Kate and Alejandro’s journey into the heart of Cartel country, an overwhelming sense of anxiety percolates until the film’s powerful and heart stopping conclusion. The film ultimately leaves the viewer with more questions than answers, completely blurring the lines of right and wrong. In the audience is reminded of Nietzsche’s words of warning “whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster”.