If Sicario wants you to know one thing, it’s that good fences make good neighbors; especially wrought iron fences, fences that are topped off with razor wire, lined with infrared cameras and maybe have a guard tower with a mounted machine gun or two every half mile. To see the film’s portrayal of Mexico, one could be forgiven for looking for Donald Trump’s name preceded by the title “executive producer”.
This is not to say that the film is artless or angry. But it never loses sight of the horror, the recurrent sense that something on the other side of the fence is terribly wrong. This is driven home in the very first scene, when an FBI raid led by Special Agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) kicks down a door of a cartel-owned house looking for hostages. But instead of hostages, they come upon a cache of more than thirty mummies, wrapped up in plastic and covered with gypsum board.
Director Denis Villeneuve, best-known for making the expressionist kidnapping drama Prisoners, knows how fine details can make a situation horrifying. If you are wondering what the suburban tomb containing the mummies looks like, it looks like the house that you live in, if you happen to live in a suburb in the western segment of the Sunbelt. It is something that is meant to be unforgettable, and the cache is enough to catch the attention of the shadier entities of the federal government.
Believing that the cartels are upping the ante on the American side of the border, Matt Gaver (Josh Brolin) and his partner, Alejandro (Benicio del Toro), arrive to put together a sort of Vlad Tepes strategy as a response. Both of them have shady credentials. Matt Gaver describes himself as a “DoD advisor” whereas Alejandro’s only introduction is that he used to be a Mexican prosecutor. And, as the audience learns more of their capabilities, it becomes apparent that these profiles are far from the whole truth. This is especially true of Alejandro, who is able to kill or maim as methodically as an electrician changes a plugged circuit.
Meanwhile, Mexico plays out its drug war on the other side of the fence as though it is part of a mass performance. (At one point, one of Gaver’s henchman invites Macer to look across into Juarez for this very reason.) The violence occasionally spills over, a contingency which is acceptable, so long as no whiff of death makes “the papers in El Paso.” And, even as the violence is largely silent, Mr. Villeneuve knows how to use his mise en scene economically enough to make it emphatic. In one particularly affecting scene, he frames a shot around Alejandro’s drawn combat knife which quietly grows larger with his approach. The point may be punctuated with an exclamation, but it is one of the most effective frames in recent memory.
But as Mr. Villeneuve’s cinematic talents work for the film’s horror and suspense, I suspect that they are working against the film that the director wanted to make. While it may not be possible for us to know the director’s intent, it seems as though we are meant to side with Macer as she and her hapless partner try to stay true to their obligations and grow skeptical of Gaver and Alejandro’s methods. Nonetheless, the film never provides a convincing reason why we should. The tactics employed by the cartel (as portrayed in the film) are as brutal and barbaric as anything practiced by ISIS. These are people who not only hurt other with impunity; they also lop off their heads and limbs and leave them hanging from highway off ramps.
Mexico’s Ministry of Tourism will probably not be hanging up posters for Sicario anytime soon, and taking the film as a guidebook for future travel decisions would be a grave disservice to our southern neighbors. Its portrayal of the drug war should be taken with a grain of salt—or maybe an ounce. But, for all that, as Alejandro gives Macer her final warning—“You are not a wolf, and this is a land of wolves now”—it is very difficult to watch the Armageddon developing on every side and argue that he is wrong.
At times, the movie aims for the heart rather than the nerves, most notably by including a subplot involving a Mexican police officer and mule named Silvio (Maximilian Hernandez) who finds himself in over his head and whose death leaves his son playing soccer near the border fence, seemingly trapped where the violence is. But the film does not offer much hope for remediation, which is to say that it is a fictional account. Good fences might make for a level of ostensible peace, but they rarely make good neighbors.