What are the rules of engagement in fighting the Mexican drug cartels especially if US law enforcement agencies go into foreign territories where they have no jurisdiction; does the end justify any means? Denis Villeneuve’s intense new film SICARIO (which means hit man in Spanish) takes us into the tactical underbelly of those cryptic individuals who carry out US policy decisions “from on high”, cloaked in legitimacy, though they are prohibited maneuvers that would be considered illegal in any court of law.
The atmosphere is beautifully filmed - either pale, washed out ochers depicting the long dusty border between US and Mexico, or the rich deep blues and blacks of the evening with night - vision goggles irradiating the world around them into skeletal images. Put a young, female FBI agent into this mix - Emily Blunt as Kate, a dedicated officer, former head of a kidnap-response unit based in Phoenix, who is forced to question all that she has practiced and been taught in the Bureau; her fiercely held personal values are turned upside down by the reality of being recruited into the midst of anti- cartel “warriors” who can behave as dark and dirty as their enemy - the drug lords that control the populous by murdering and slaughtering men, women and children, stringing up body parts hanging them from electricity wires like abandoned baggage on clothes-lines.
Transporting, manufacturing, shipping and controlling the wildly lucrative drug industry necessitates making alliances - everyone is corruptible from the dealers to the federales and police on both sides of the border - all partaking of the spoils, while their interior sentiments become ghosts evaporating into the surroundings. “It is not personal” are words that exemplify the cool calculations of those in power whose humanity has been shredded, and who barricade themselves with bodyguards and fancy homes from the brutality that they inflict on nameless people.
Kate and her FBI partner ( a good performance by Daniel Kaluuya) are the two newcomers brought along on a mission that they were not briefed on - so the “fog of war” is indeed literally murky. Everything becomes clear with time, but meanwhile we in the audience are as mystified as the protagonists. We meet a team of hardened DEA operatives with Josh Brolin as Matt - the wise-cracking, gum chewing leader who is a cipher, offhandedly refusing to respond with a straight answer to any question put before him. Despite his Cheshire-like grin, there is a man beneath the lumbering, impenetrable veneer who is callously determined to fulfill the U.S. government’s calculated goals no matter the toll.
Benicio Del Toro is the “star” of SICARO, brilliant as the mercenary Alejandro - a person whose face reveals little, but whose eyes and body language betray a passionate resolve for revenge, and a history of incomparable pain and suffering at the hands of the drug-lords becoming a person for hire with no longer a “soul” to lose. He is the “enforcer,” expert at torture and killing, yet despite his horrific activities, every moment he is on the screen it is filled with his abundant presence and an acute sense of heartache.
Kate’s sojourn from an idealistic FBI agent to an awareness of the brutal realities of the contaminated policies used by the United States to combat the “drug war” is a bit naive and inconclusive. We sense that she remains a staunch believer in the underlying principle of the “rule of law”, but we know all-too-well that she is standing on shaky grounds.