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Monday Mayhem: Sicario - The most grounded take on America’s war on drugs

The Denis Villeneuve classic is an underappreciated masterpiece

  • Ryan Gomez

Last Updated: 05.06 PM, Jun 13, 2022

Monday Mayhem: Sicario - The most grounded take on America’s war on drugs

In our new weekly series Monday Mayhem, we recommend fast-paced Hollywood action films

Denis Villeneuve has quietly established himself as one of the coveted filmmakers in Hollywood. The French-Canadian director’s 2021 magnum opus Dune, is his project that garnered attention and praise from a global audience. This is despite the fact that he has been making critically acclaimed films for more than a decade.

His 2016 film, Arrival, did create plenty of scope for discussion, thanks to its unique art style, non-linear narrative structure, and its exploration into the idea of an authentic ‘first contact with extraterrestrial beings’. However, it failed to propel him as a household name in the manner in which Christopher Nolan solidified his status. Whereas some of his other major films such as Blade Runner 2049, despite being revered as one of the best sci-fi films ever made, failed at the box office. His 2015 film, Sicario, was never going to be a blockbuster. And Villeneuve took this as an opportunity to flesh out a grounded take on America's war on drugs.

The film does not feature a conventional narrative structure, nor does it have conventional characters. Instead, it features complex characters thrust into an even more complex situation. The protagonist, the FBI agent Kate Macer, played by Emily Blunt, is probably the most relatable character, and even has a relatively straightforward character arc, until halfway into the narrative. Her quest to apprehend those responsible for the horrific incident at the start of the film is noble and virtuous. And when she finally joins an interagency task force with the CIA, she believes it will be an opportunity to put a dent into the Mexican drug cartel operations inside US soil.

Macer soon realises that her role within this task force is not what she had assumed it to be. She is merely a pawn in a much bigger game. In fact, her role in the narrative itself serves an entirely different purpose, she is the reflection of the audience’s shock and horror at the scenes unfolding on screen. The truth and revelations about the cross-border mission paint a morbid picture of a war that the United States has been aggressively involved in since Ronald Reagan’s Presidency in the 80s.

Josh Brolin essays the role of Matt Graver, the mysterious CIA operative, whereas Benicio Del Toro plays the role of a CIA enforcer, Alejandro, a former Mexican lawyer whose family was murdered by the cartel. Kate and Alejandro’s journeys are central to the film’s core themes. Kate goes from a bright and respected FBI agent to a broken woman questioning the idea of good versus evil, as well the justice and the justice system. Whereas Alejandro goes from being broken and traumatised in search of vengeance to a man finding a semblance of peace and closure. In retrospect, the lead character, despite her moral compass, is left questioning everything, whereas the morally grey character is able to make sense of the precarious nature of their mission.

The story and the relatively subdued ending give the eerie feeling of a crime documentary, but Villeneuve has exercised his filmmaking ingenuity to give a unique cinematic experience. The film’s strengths lie in its editing, sound design, and subtle yet devastating action scenes. The iconic ‘border crossing scene’ is a master class in editing. The scene takes 12-13 minutes to build up to its payoff, but the action sequence is executed in under 2 minutes. The music, exposition, and editing leading up to that particular moment at the border deserve an award category for itself. There are no drawn-out gun fights, or over-dramatic shootouts involving heroes and villains, instead, there is a ‘blink-and-you will miss it’ gunfight executed to perfection.

While Sicario does rely on fast-paced action at times, its action works best when the explosions are toned down. Unlike the louder action films, Sicario approaches the genre, unlike any other film. It also brings into focus one of the more lesser-known wars in the world today — the war on drugs.

Jon Bernthal, Daniel Kaluuya, Jeffrey Donovan, and Victor Garber essay other important characters in the film.

You can watch Sicario here.