Throughout history, the righteous have found themselves into conflicts where the opponent isn’t a nation, or a group, but an entire mindset. The problem is always the same, the rules of engagement are torn up, and it’s less about winning than it is losing slower. It’s enough to make you wonder why anybody would get into a game where the opponent has the numbers, unlimited time on the clock, and the ability to rewrite the rulebook at will.
SICARIO begins with an FBI assault on a drug running operation in suburban Arizona. When the task force assembled finds not just drugs present, but dead bodies, a drastic response is required. This team has its recruiting eye on Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), one of the agents who led the Arizona assault. The full reason for Kate’s recruitment though is kept a mystery by the team leader: a gum-chewing, flip-flop-wearing, wiseass named Matt Graver (Josh Brolin). He seems to just want Kate to watch, learn, and cover everyone’s back.
While it’s true that Matt’s attitude is enigmatic, he has nothing on the strong, silent Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro). Alejandro is clearly not an agent of any branch of American law enforcement, but he seems to have intel and understanding of the situation that is unrivalled. Matt trusts him implicitly, Kate is wary of him, and we in the audience can only watch and wonder as Matt slowly reveals his motives.
The mission takes the team to Juarez, Mexico where a suspect in the drug ring is extracted with amazing precision. The operation is well out of American jurisdiction, and highly dangerous, yet despite all the obstacles, the target is taken. Once at the border though, the mission takes a turn and the team has to fight its way out of a trap.
In the wake of this, Kate demands answers. What is the mission’s true objective? Just what does the stoic Alejandro bring to the table? Who are the good guys…and who are the bad guys?
What we have here is a story that wants to remind us just how chaotic our world is, and will always be. We can pass laws, build fences, pick-up weapons, and tell ourselves that we are protecting the greater good. However, a great many times the ones doing the protecting are people many of us could use some protection from. Likewise, the mayhem that the virtuous among us want to get under control is actually keeping a greater chaos in-check.
We like to believe that we can tame the wolves at the door, when the truth is that we value the wolves because at least we know what they’re hungry for.
Watching Kate relate differently to every man she encounters is truly fascinating, since she seems to alternate between being an aggressor, a stone-cold weapon, and an overmatched opponent. She is a multifaceted character who can seem both in great peril or complete control depending on her circumstances, and who’s talking to her (or, more often than not, at her). However, it’s her interactions with Alejandro that are most interesting. Here is a relationship that begins with unknowns, uncertainties, and x-factors…and yet by the end, it is the most well-established bond in the story.
Blunt and del Toro have a kinship between them, but it is a connection that continually seems to be evolving and comes with brushstrokes of many colours. We can see it in the way they look at each-other and likewise how they speak. Perhaps it comes from the characters both being “outsiders” to the operation at-hand, or perhaps it comes from both being the very best at what they do and not just cocksure gunslingers.
Watching their relationship play-out is fascinating since it’s not always strictly professional, never romantic, and grows a great deal from scene-to-scene. It’s a male/female dynamic that we don’t see in film, where so much needs to be fused with sex or mentorship.
The beauty about a film like SICARIO is the way that it’s in no rush to show its hand. A lesser film would need to spell-out things in the first act: details like who Alejandro is, which agency Matt works for, or what the actual objective of the mission is besides, as Matt puts it, “dramatically overreacting”. SICARIO knows its audience. It knows the sort of maturity and patience that they will bring into the cinema and how to reward that patience and maturity. It’s not like the revelation of Alejandro’s origins or the true need for Kate’s presence are “twists exactly, more that they’re key details. Still, they are details that are withheld for half, and three-quarters of the story respectively. There’s a want by studio films, and a need by ADD audiences to have everything spelled-out within the first ten minutes. The way this movie refrains from doing that gives us a real sense of Kate’s confusion, and likewise her want to get to the bottom of things.
SICARIO is a film designed to make us feel small and insignificant. Between its vast scenery, it’s unnerving score, and the precisely chaotic violence, we wonder how anyone could possibly be in control of such a world. The rules of this game seem too bloodthirsty, the players too mountainous. The very field in which the game is played seems huge, and as one character puts it – nothing is out-of-bounds because the boundaries keep being moved. Such is the power of this movie; to take the virtuous part of us that feels like it would do “the right thing” and show just how impossible that is when surrounded by greed, insanity, and complete disregard for human life.
It doesn’t so much leave you wondering how any decent person could ever win this game, so much as why any right-minded person would ever want to play.