In this slice of the Broken Cliché I will look to assess the handling of violence in films of interest. Today I explore violence in Dennis Villenueve’s Sicario. Some of this content will pass as SPOILERS. Be advised.
I’ve seen Sicario twice now and whilst it loses some bite on the narrative front Villenueve’s provocative vision remains assured. The American war on drugs and the cycles of violence accompanying it take center stage here and probably the first thing that will jump out at you here is the lack of drugs in this so called anti-drug effort. It is really the idea violence that Villeneuve appears to be interested here and he approaches this from two angles.
First there’s the war on drugs that has devolved into plain seemingly motiveless war with the spices of incomprehensible acts of violence that one could call the war crimes. The film opens with FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) and her team responding to a hostage situation in possibly the lowliest frontier in the war on drugs. The director here sets the tone for the film with calculated horror he serves up early on. There are no hostages here but what this FBI team does find are dozens of corpses hidden within the walls of this den as S.W.A.T. meets S7ven. This horrifying opening is as deplorable as they come and Villeneuve leaves the possible motivations to the offcuts of violence onscreen to audience imaginations. The script goes on to projects an aura of disorientation following the shocking scenes with an explosion following a tripped booby trap.
The first causality of war is truth. Our view of the war onscreen doesn’t sway form this sentiment. Macer is engulfed by layers of deceit and cynicism that appear to characterize the frontline of this war. She is recruited to join a government task force that operates with questionable tactics and no oversight. We later learn she was only brought in because the CIA cannot operate on the home turf without the involvement of an internal security agency. We have no doubt she is not cut for this world as a key character reinforces this point late on. She is weak, yes but weakness always equates to humanity when assessing things on the violence spectrum. She is dragged over the line by the shady types but we see in her eyes someone trying to claw back to humanity. She is discarded like a piece of trash when the mission is over but there is some grace in Macer’s arch.
There is nothing graceful about the rest of the characters or the rest of the film. There is a domineering callousness to the American front of this war that is pretty much a mismatch in the simplistic way you could say the Vietnam War was. At the end of the terrifically constructed incursion into Juarez, Mexico (Easily the best thriller set piece this year) what we have is a straight up massacre that puts the state of affairs in perspective. There is the sense of dread and a tense aura handing over the film as the Americans sit in the slow moving traffic looking to complete their mission without a hitch or at least it appears so mainly because Macer is nervous and she is the audience surrogate here. We forget that the American contingent we see consist of probably CIA agents, Delta Force and special forces operatives. It isn’t a contest. The Americans neutralize the Mexican street hoodlums sent their way with inhuman ease. Macer is outraged.
This scene fully sets the tone for who the primary victims of this war is – the lowly mostly innocent Mexicans (primarily in Juarez here) caught in the cyclone of violence whipped up by American security and drug barons. Growing up, talk of the drug war normally came with Columbia and the Medellin cartel. There has been a progression in the last few decades with the drug trade and its accompanying violence pushing down south till it appears to have hit the immovable object that is the US Mexican border. The result here is a collision that erupts in a purgatory with decapitated bodies hanging round the city of Juarez like decorations in what is ostensibly an urban warzone. The celebration here is fear.
The film really starts to hit home when Benecio Del Toro’s Alejandro takes center stage. In him we have a more personal exhibition on the cycles of violence. His character checks a number of the pointers on violence I noted in my inaugural post on this theme. We recognize the immediate themes of isolation on different levels – physical, race and, to a lesser extent, apparel. When we first see him he stands alone in the periphery of the frame and almost feels like a non-entity as the film unravels but we can sense something dark brooding. We sense right.
The idea of violence as an identity rears its head here. Alejandro is referred to as Medellin by a character. The word Medellin in the context of the drug trade doesn’t bring to the fore many kind images. Alejandro is immediately aligned with one of the more violent periods in time when he is put in tandem with that Colombian hotspot. We also learn the Alejandro we see is a product of violence – of pain and loss. He was a lawyer in Juarez when his wife and daughter joined the long list of drug related casualties. He is a black hole of vengeance now and new cog in the mechanics of violence that will ultimately be resolved by ruthless bloodshed.
Upon Sicario’s denouement, the lines remain clear. There is a clear distinction between Alejandro and Macer. Macer is worn out emotionally and physical. She has no place in the land of wolves as Alejandro puts. Alejandro, on the other hand is at home here on this spectrum. Our feelings towards him waver from intrigue to astonishment to plain repulsion. He is firmly entrenched in this cynical cycle.