Year Released: 2015
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Starring: Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin
(R, 120 min.)
Genre: Drama, Action and Adventure
“All concerns of men go wrong when they wish to cure evil with evil.” Sophocles
Just like its starring new FBI recruit, the audience is in the dark about the gritty reality behind this Mexican drug cartel mission. It’s a reckless ride from Phoenix to Juarez, whether the grotesque bodies hide behind suburban walls or the hanging ones offer a macabre welcome.
In the lawless border area stretching between the U.S. and Mexico, an idealistic FBI agent [Emily Blunt] is enlisted by an elite government task force official [Josh Brolin] to aid in the escalating war against drugs. Led by an enigmatic consultant with a questionable past [Benicio Del Toro], the team sets out on a clandestine journey forcing Kate to question everything that she believes in order to survive.
As in director Villenueve’s 2013 release, Prisoners, this is not a film for the squeamish, and it ends on a note of ambiguity and dissonance like Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, which caused a riot at its Paris opening in 1913. Sicario's moral ambiguity arises like the choking dust from its sunbaked desert locales. Those fighting the ruthless become tainted by them.
Emily Blunt’s FBI agent Kate is reminiscent of Jessica Chastain’s CIA agent in Zero Dark Thirty, whose porcelain skin, fine features, and tiny frame masked the determined soul inside. But unlike Chastain, whose breakthrough leads the hunt for Bin Laden, Kate is not really inside the loop here.
A trip to El Paso to extract a prisoner, as she is told, in reality turns out to be a trip over the border and outside their jurisdiction to Juarez, Mexico, once dubbed the murder capital of the world. And the city tries very hard to live up to this title. It’s a place where mutilated naked corpses hang from the highway overheads, a silent warning to all.
And as former Juarez prosecutor Alejandro Gillick (Benicio Del Toro) tells Kate, the mutilation of the corpses serves a purpose – to make them look inhuman and guilty.
The hardened Delta Force operatives inside the caravan of black SUVs know they are in hostile territory, a warzone of corruption where it is a given that local police are the enemy. The mere sight of a police car makes them change their course through the narrow streets. But it is at the international bridge on their way back that they expect trouble.
Perhaps sensing that the movie going public is almost inured to high-speed car chases, Villeneuve slows things down here to a manufactured traffic jam near the border, the cameras panning adjacent cars loaded with tattooed menace and firepower. We sit in the back seat along with Kate, like cornered prey, our adrenaline pulsing every bit as strongly without any squealing wheels or racing autos.
Blunt’s Kate is propelled by conflicting motives. She wants to prove herself to the boy’s club she now accompanies, but they treat her more like a little sister, a ride along addition forced on them at the last minute. She can go with them, but she is privy to only a minimum of details about what they are doing. And she gets downright prissy when they bend the rules, leaving the border bridge littered with bloody corpses that Alejandro insists “won’t even make the Juarez papers.” A prissiness that grates a little, just as the actress’s real life comments about regretting her newly acquired American citizenship did recently.
Just like her, the audience gets its information on a need to know basis, which keeps us as tense and taut as Kate. Josh Brolin’s Matt Graver parcels it out grudgingly, and we, like Kate, begin to wonder if we are getting the truth, or at least all of it. When he tells her she has seen things she shouldn’t, there is more than a hint of menace there.
Benicio Del Toro’s Alejandro is middle-aged, overweight, and kind of frumpy in his seersucker suit, but behind the world-weary eyes we see a steely resolution. There is nothing that will get between him and his single goal, as Kate finds out more than once. She is out to prove herself, to right the wrongs of the world; he is beyond proving anything except to himself. And there is only one wrong that he wants righted.
This thriller gives us plenty of action, a frightening close-up as the cameras put us right next to explosive action. We are there with Kate riveted in the back seat of the SUV, or stepping into a claustrophobic smuggling tunnel. We see the dangerous world behind night vision goggles, or wait in boredom on a stakeout.
But we also see a problem so inextricable, so evil that it taints those who know they cannot end it. Only chop off one of the hydra’s heads before it grows two others. Or perhaps try to sever the head of Medusa while hoping their hearts do not turn to stone.
Being or at least trying to be one of the boys, Agent Kate Macy drinks her beer right out of the bottle. Perhaps a little bit too much of it, too, as the dangerous encounter with the handsome barroom pickup proves.
We'll let her be a lady tonight. She can trade in her El Paso honky-tonk for Trudy’s Tex-Mex Restaurant and Bar right here in Austin, Texas. And we’ll have Kate exchange her cerveza for a delightful Mexican Martini. Just sip it slowly, gal, or you might end up having the same problem here.
Trudy’s Mexican Martini Recipe
The original, from Trudy's here in Austin. Author's choice of tequila is Herradura Silver. –Amy Gautreaux
2 fluid ounces tequila
1 fluid ounce Cointreau liqueur
1 -2 fluid ounce Sprite
1 fluid ounce orange juice
½ lime, juice of
Peppermint leaf for garnish
Shake all ingredients and strain into glass rimmed with salt; add stuffed olives. Garnish with the peppermint.