This is not an original idea, but it has been said that war films can usually be broken down into two categories: films that focus on an individuals struggle during a war and films that focus on the broader scope of the war, showing what the war is on a more macro level, while still showing some of the effect it has on the protagonist. An example of this can be seen in the contrast between The Deer Hunter an Apocalypse Now. Both films are masterful about the Vietnam War, yet both depict the same war in severely different ways. The Deer Hunter very specifically focuses on Michael and Nick and how different they are before and after the war. The war itself is depicted in the film, but it takes a back seat to the characters themselves; it shows us their lives before the war, what happens to them during the war, and their mental state at the conclusion of the war. Apocalypse Now, is a different film. Though it has a compelling protagonist, the true beauty of this film is how it uses Captain Willard to show the audience different aspects of the war. It shows us the soldiers, it shows us various war zones, and it shows the effect that the war has on the locals.
Sicario, plays a delicate game of attempting to show us a film somewhere in between a personal story like The Deer Hunter and a more global story like Apocalypse Now. The film follows the story of Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), an FBI agent, who finds herself joining an inter-agency task force with the sole task of fighting the war on drugs. The task force, as explained to Macer, was assembled with the intent of smoking out one of the most powerful drug lords in Mexico. Macer is joined by Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) a member of the CIA, and Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) who is introduced as an adviser to the Department of Defense. A team is then assembled to conduct missions in both Mexico and in the United States, in an effort to frustrate the drug lord enough that he reveals his location. As the plot unfolds, both Macer and the audience slowly begin to learn that there is something more going on than what we have been allowed to know.
The true beauty of this film is how it uses Kate Macer to keep the story close and personal to the audience, while at the same time placing her in such a vast amount of situations that it allows one to get a feel for the war on a more global level. Kate is presented to us as a “thumper”. She has spent the last four years as part of the FBI’s response team, tactically taking down doors when the FBI requires a forceful entrance. She is not part of the FBI’s intelligence team and candidly informs Graver that she knows little about the leaders of the Mexican drug cartel. Her ability to be part of an assault team, and her lack of knowledge on the subject of drug cartels is what ends up getting her admitted to the interagency task force. The audience, like Kate, proceeds through the film not knowing why certain actions are being taken, and taking Kate’s superiors at their word when they explain to her why certain decisions are made. There is rarely a scene in this film that does not include Kate through the majority of the film, and it is only near the end of the film when the audience finally sees what the true intent of the task force was. We watch Kate as she makes her way through the story, watching her become frustrated, upset, and angry. We watch her become defiant and we watch her become defeated when she realizes how small she is in relation to the war itself. In this sense, the movie is very much like The Deer Hunter or Saving Private Ryan. We experience the same conflict the character experiences and we watch the change that comes over Kate as the plot progresses. There is no question in the audience’s mind that Kate is not the same person at the end of the film as she was at the start, and it is the war that has changed her.
Simultaneously, We are also presented with the more global story. For many parts of the film, though Kate is present, she is clueless as to what is happening or why she is there. During these scenes Alejandro and Matt are there to guide her and us. In one particularly disturbing scene, Kate is traveling through a Mexican city as part of a caravan. As the caravan moves through the city, naked and mutilated bodies are seen hanging in the open air. These are the victims of the drug war, as explained by Steve Forsing (Jeffrey Donovan), another member of the task force. As they drive by, Forsing tells Kate, “It’s brilliant what they do. When they mutilate a body like that, they make people think they must have been involved, they must have deserved such a death because they did something. Oh, it’s brilliant what they do.” Though this moment is not meant to develop Kate’s character. This scene is provided for the audience, to show both the audience and Kate that there are facets of the drug war that we have absolutely no knowledge of. there is another plot line in the film that is completely apart from Kate’s story, and it is the story of a Mexican family. The father is a cop, who drinks a bit, but clearly loves his son. The mother is a quiet person who takes care of the family in the home. The child is just a happy go lucky kid who loves playing soccer and wakes his father up every morning to get him breakfast and to get his father to come watch him play soccer. Until the very end, we do not understand why we are shown these scenes, but once the plot is finally laid bare before the audience, the reason becomes clear. The audience is again shown how far the horror of the drug war can spread. These are just a couple examples in a film that is littered with moments that are designed to present the war to us in its gruesome entirety, and it is in this way that the film brilliantly rides the center line between being a film about the trials and tribulations of a single character and a film about the full expanse of the drug war.
I cannot end this post without also commenting on the amazing directing of this film and the acting form the main ensemble. The director, Denis Villeneuve’s direction is absolutely brilliant. From the very first scene, where we see Kate and her team prepare to breach a house where an alleged kidnapper resides, an eeriness exists that we as the audience cannot shake for the rest of the film. The silence from the characters in the assault vehicle as they glare at each other, combined with the low rumbling music and the noise of the vehicle’s engine slowly rising, creates an anxiety in us that never truly leaves. Even in the final moments of the film we still feel anxious, uncertain of whether we are tense because of everything we have seen or tense because we keep waiting for a different ending. Villeneuve’s direction is near perfect in this sense, and it is elevated by the cast. In particular, Benicio Del Toro is the source of much anxiety.
We first meet Del Toro’s character on a private jet. Though he is sleeping, he is clearly troubled, eventually waking himself up by shouting. Alejandro is shown to be equal in his kindness to Kate as he is in his merciless brutality to those who stand in his way. As Kate’s defiance grows through the film, so does the audience’s belief that it is only a matter of time before Alejandro’s kindness will cease and she will have to face the monster that his enemies have come to know. The fact that Del Toro’s performance did not get him an Oscar nomination for supporting actor is one of the greatest travesties of this year’s Oscars. Next to his work in Che, this was one of Del Toro’s finest performances and it is unbelievable to me that it has gone so unrecognized.
I have done my best to avoid spoilers in this review, because I believe it is imperative that one see this movie with as little knowledge of the plot as possible, in order to be in the same position as Kate. I hope I was successful in this endeavor and did not reveal more than what was necessary for this review. I truly believe this film to be one of the best films of 2015 and urge everyone to see it. However, for those of you who need more to decide whether to see this film, here is the opening scene, which hooked me instantly when I first saw it.