Film Review: “Sicario”—Horror, South of the Border

Whatever its flaws, Sicario goes a long way to informing us of what’s happening just south of the border—not driven by illegal immigration, but by American drug lust.

Sicario, directed by Denis Villeneuve. Screening at the Somerville Theater, Coolidge Corner Theater, and other cinemas around New England.

Emily Blunt in a scene from "Sicario."

Emily Blunt in a scene from “Sicario.”

By Harvey Blume

Saw Sicario this rainy afternoon, a film about Mexican cartels and the drug trade. Sicario has the look and feel—the pacing, content, and the grinding, grating music—of a horror movie. In a way, it is a horror movie.

We see plastic-wrapped corpses rotting away behind thin walls, and mutilated bodies hanging face down from buildings. For kids playing soccer, automatic weapon fire is background noise.

From everything I know about the Mexican drug cartels, there’s nothing exaggerated about this. What goes on in the battles among cartels, and between the cartels and law enforcement, sets new standards for brutality, comparable, in its way, to the self-advertising murderousness of ISIS.

Of course, the cartels aren’t fighting for anything as lofty as a caliphate or a return to some imagined ancient glory; the incredible wealth to be had from satisfying their northern neighbor’s appetite for drugs grown in or funneled through Mexico provides the motivation.

I didn’t need this movie to make that point, having read The Cartel by Don Winslow, a fact-based novel that starts off with a long list of journalists murdered just for writing about the cartels. Like Sicario, it’s a powerful horror story.

Some criticisms: Emily Blunt, in a lead role, feels miscast. I say this as someone who likes watching her—except when she reverts back to a default setting of sweetness and naïveté. In Sicario, after fellow officers in her police department are blown up by men working for the Sinaloa cartel, she volunteers for a drug enforcement unit gone more than a little rogue. From then on, she is shocked, shocked, and yet again shocked. Her hand covers her mouth, she gasps.

She’s right to gasp, given what she sees and, despite reservations, participates in. But there’s something missing in her portrayal—some toughness, rage, transformation, grit.

Blunt has said that what attracted her to the role is that she, “thought it was really powerful to see this person’s ideals slowly being stripped away from her throughout the course of the film.” But what emerges after all those ideals are stripped off is prettiness, softness, mush. Blunt is English. I allowed myself to entertain the admittedly nasty thought that the effort involved in maintaining an American accent is part of what drained her character of much in the way of character.

The character played by Benicio del Toro is her opposite, well-acquainted with cartel terror and, for a reason it would be a spoiler to reveal, capable of terrifying response.

Another criticism: The movie starts by explaining that Sicario, which we’re told means “hit man” in Spanish, derives from “Sicarii,” those Hebrews who, in the first century war against Roman occupiers, sought Roman soldiers to knife. It’s not so simple. The truth is that Sicarii who roamed the streets of Jerusalem were less likely to find errant Roman legionnaires than to turn their knives against fellow Jews judged insufficiently committed to a doomed revolt.

You get something of that in a face off between Benicio del Toro and Emily Blunt near the end. Blunt gasps, hand over her mouth. Del Toro, though, is true Sicarii. Blunt is a jello-mold, del Toro a killer.

Whatever its flaws, this film goes a long way to informing us of what’s happening just south of the border. The issue raised is not, contra-Trump, illegal immigration, but American drug lust. Some episodes of Breaking Bad work with this material. Sicario and Winslow’s novel, The Cartel, go deeper. They bring to mind a statement by Doyle in one of the Holmes stories that: “It is a horror coming upon a horror which breaks a man’s spirit.”

Harvey Blume is an author—Ota Benga: The Pygmy At The Zoo—who has published essays, reviews, and interviews widely, in The New York Times, Boston Globe, Agni, The American Prospect, and The Forward, among other venues. His blog in progress, which will archive that material and be a platform for new, is here. He contributes regularly to The Arts Fuse, and wants to help it continue to grow into a critical voice to be reckoned with.

1 Comment

  1. Harvey Blume on October 15, 2015 at 6:21 pm

    Shortly after my review of Sicario was published, the NY Times featured a piece in which the residents of Juarez, Mexico, the putative setting for horrendous violence depicted in the film (most of which was actually filmed in Albuquerque), objected strenuously to the way their city had been portrayed.

    According to this piece, Juárez had healed.

    “Bars and clubs are buzzing, and expensive cars — once hidden in garages — purr at traffic lights.”

    The Times asks how that happened, coming up, finally, with the answer that the Sinaloan and Juárez cartels have made peace. For now. Ultra-violence has been transferred to other parts of Mexico.

    How not? As long as the drugs flow through and citizens of the United States pay for them. . .

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