We have a welfare state of our very own in America, but the taxpayer dollars don’t go to national healthcare, high-speed rail, family leave policies or affordable higher education. Instead we pay for the secret and massively expensive infrastructure of people, guns, vehicles, intelligence, ugly buildings secured by “perimeters” and high-tech hardware seen in “Sicario,” the gripping and ominous new drug-war thriller from Canadian director Denis Villeneuve. If “Sicario” feels an awful lot (maybe too much) like “Zero Dark Thirty” with a North American setting, that’s because it poses the same set of questions: How far should we go to protect our consumer paradise? And what are we actually protecting when we decide there are no rules?
Oh, and here’s a valuable detour for those of you warming up your comment fingers on that topic: Of course I read the recent Vice report on the extensive contacts between CIA officials and Mark Boal and Kathryn Bigelow, the writer and director of “Zero Dark Thirty.” I agree with ZDT critics that all that doesn’t look great in retrospect – but not great for whom? Instead of flinging up your hands in horror, follow the money and the logic. You don’t have to like the movie or its perceived message, but bear in mind that Boal is a veteran investigative reporter who knows how to work sources. Which side of that exchange was lavishing gifts on the other? Which side was spilling secrets, and has wound up the object of an investigation? Does it look like Leon Panetta and the CIA were playing the filmmakers, or more like the star-struck spooks got hustled?
With “Sicario” (the title references a Mexican slang term for “hitman”), Villeneuve has found a subject suited to his abundant gifts for showmanship, tension and violence, and also to his tendency to overcook the soup and then burn down the kitchen. His international breakthrough came with “Incendies” in 2010, a melodramatic potboiler veiled in art-film drag. That movie was positively restrained compared to his ludicrous American debut, “Prisoners,” featuring Jake Gyllenhaal’s twitchiest performance and Hugh Jackman’s most vein-bulging, which in both cases is really saying something. “Sicario” has its flaws, including an implausibly wide-eyed FBI agent played by Emily Blunt, who appears not to have noticed the altered trajectory of American law enforcement over the last 15 years or so. But overstating the insanity, tragedy, existential gloom and overall horror-movie ambiance of the drug war along our southern border is not among those flaws, since that’s almost impossible.
No, wait -- let me walk that back a little. “Sicario” is a queasy-making thrill ride through Dick Cheney’s Theme Park on the Dark Side, with an enjoyable cast headed by Blunt, Josh Brolin as a bro-tastic but oddly sinister secret agent in flip-flops and Benicio Del Toro as a person of uncertain provenance (is he Mexican? Is he Colombian? Is he CIA?) who is approximately the scariest guy ever. Actor-turned-writer Taylor Sheridan’s canny screenplay walks that line between assuring us that all this manly murder and mayhem is Keeping Us Safe [TM] and that the whole thing is a gruesome catastrophe. But I found myself doing battle with the seductive atmosphere of amorality, and the Trumpian allure of the permanent worst-case scenario, from the opening images. It’s not so much that “Sicario” endorses noxious policies as that it depicts a world where everything is terrible and nothing can be understood. (To be fair, that's a worldview to which I am generally sympathetic.)
When Agent Kate Macer (Blunt) and her team raid a suspected cartel house in suburban Phoenix, they don’t just find bodies – they find 42 bodies, apparently people asphyxiated with plastic bags and entombed in the walls. When Kate crosses the border into Ciudad Juárez with an “interagency task force” headed by cheerful and devious Matt (Brolin), the place looks more like Fallujah at the height of the Iraqi insurgency than like a city where 1.5 million people lead reasonably normal lives. (Yeah, Juárez has a scary reputation and a significant violent crime problem. So bad that its murder rate is only slightly lower than that of St. Louis or Detroit, and about the same as New Orleans.)
If you don’t pay attention to facts when it comes to murder rates and the drug war and border issues – and hardly anyone does, as Donald Trump’s campaign has established – then it’s easy to assume that Villeneuve and Sheridan are depicting harsh reality, rather than attacking our collective limbic system with a pileup of nightmarish images. It may be gratifying, in a certain sense, to believe that suburbia is full of tract homes stuffed with dozens of dead Mexicans, or that major Latin American cities have degenerated into total carnage and chaos. If that’s the way the world is, as Matt keeps telling Kate in his jovial tough-love sermons, then we can’t afford to be overly concerned with the legality of the methods we use to maintain order, or the moral quality of the weapons we employ.
Now I’ve talked myself all the way around to a visceral distaste for “Sicario” and its implied worldview. But that might not be fair either because this movie constantly hedges its moral bets, and at any rate there is no disputing its ingenuity, its technical excellence (with cinematography by the estimable Roger Deakins) and its mounting atmosphere of dread. Del Toro’s mysterious character, Alejandro, is a diabolical figure of destiny somewhat akin to the moptop madman played by Javier Bardem in “No Country for Old Men,” while Brolin’s blend of brutality and bonhomie is straight out of an off-kilter spy novel by Denis Johnson or Don DeLillo. I’m more than half inclined to see the internal racial and gender coding of “Sicario” as no accident: Kate and her African-American FBI partner, Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya), play the innocent Little Red Riding Hood figures among these wolves, repeatedly and curiously outraged to learn that double agents and special-ops forces and shadowy mercenaries are not observing jurisdictional regulations or filling out the appropriate forms in triplicate.
Villeneuve handles action scenes with impressive flair, but also understands that the key to effective action is to build up to it slowly and inexorably. He also knows the Stephen King trick of escalating the tension by giving something away in advance: Going into the mission to extract a captured drug lord from Juárez, we are told repeatedly that the cartel’s counterstrike will come when the convoy tries to cross the bridge back to El Paso. That’s entirely true, but only makes the traffic jam at the border crossing more excruciating. What ends do the expertly managed action and suspense of “Sicario” serve, beyond building a rather conventional multi-stranded “Babel”/”Traffic” narrative of interconnected human tragedy? Who is the hitman of the title, and who sent him on his deadly mission? Beneath its moral spaghetti tangle and its deliberate obfuscation, “Sicario” almost suggests an answer. But as we look in the mirror, are we supposed to congratulate ourselves or feel ashamed?