“Sicario” (2015) shines through with its cartel craft

by Andrew Kingsley | 11/15/15 6:08pm

Movies these days are addicted to drugs cartels. So popular in fact, they have become been Netflix-ized into the new series “Narcos” (2015). Too many action thrillers employ some drug kingpin as an antagonist crutch, a cardboard cutout of a classical evil whom the bad-ass good guys can shoot at, chase and kill. “Sicario” (2015) works within this mold, but manages to come out as a crystallized, complex negotiation of border politics injected with pinpoint acting and lush cinematography.

Like something straight out of “Silence of the Lambs” (1991), FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) opens the film by invading the Phoenix, Arizona, home containing 42 plastic-wrapped corpses within its walls. This Pandora’s Box of death leads her to join a CIA special operatives team investigating the Sonora drug cartel in Mexico. Sicario translates to “hitman” in English, yet Kate becomes more like a hostage, dragged through CIA operations by her bosses Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro). Ignorant of her real purpose. Kate gets a personal ride through the Styx that is Juarez, Mexico, where mutilated corpses hang off bridges like animals in a slaughterhouse. The cartels have infected the city like a virus, corrupting citizens and police alike. Alejandro takes this idea one step further, saying that taking down the cartel’s boss “would be like discovering a vaccine.”

Director Denis Villeneuve paints in unease and the uncanny, artfully crafting reconnaissance missions with almost painful patience. Eerie aerial shots capture landscapes that feel not quite human. Accompanied by Johann Johannsson’s minimalist, pulsating score, a simple traffic jam becomes a pressure cooker waiting to explode, as the team’s extradition mission escalates into a highway shoot-out. A night-vision raid on a drug tunnel becomes a tortuous, nail-biting mission through the bowels of the cartel underworld.

As the only woman in this universe, Kate has her early idealism systematically beaten out of her as she is punched, shot, prostituted and held at gunpoint by her own bosses. Kate endures humiliating abuse — with hands repeatedly wrapped around her throat, she cannot utter “the horror! The horror!” in this heart of darkness. Her trembling fingers and bruised mien belie her paper-thin composure, and Blunt adeptly captures Kate’s self-contained apocalypse. In this men’s club, cracks are fatal. Her bosses’ robotic inhumanity transforms Kate into a masochistic pawn. But this self-torture borders on senselessness — beyond her loyalty to two fallen comrades, it is unclear why Kate perseveres. The film relishes the ambiguity between crime and law enforcement. While it proves its thesis early, it continues to beat this dying horse.

Alejandro, however, has crystal clear moves — track down the Sonora men who beheaded his wife and drowned his daughter in acid. Laconic and mechanical, he pursues his targets with monomaniacal efficiency and proves the most engrossing member of this inferno. Akin to Anton Chigurh in “No Country for Old Men” (2005), he single-handedly takes down the Sonora kingpins in a James Bond-esque denouement.

Ultimately, this war on drugs develops a crushing futility. Like a hydra, a dead drug boss births five new cartels hoping to make it big. Much like the war on terror, the war on the drug trade has become so abstracted, a metaphor for border relations and general crime, that it develops an impossible immensity. Graver admits they are not trying to stop the drug trade, but rather restore order by confining it to one cartel. Villeneuve’s panoramic aerial shots of dense Mexican cityscapes capture this daunting scope. As Gore Vidal once stated. it’s like fighting a war against dandruff — that other white powder. It is endless. Fortunately, “Sicario” stays within a lean two-hour framework, bringing craft, crispness and vitality to a threadbare genre which itself serves as a cinematic narcotic.

Rating: 9/10

“Sicario” played at the Loew Theater at the Hopkins Center this past Saturday at 8 p.m.