On the one hand, Sicario, the new thriller from Denis Villeneuve, engages in the sort of casually brutal violence for which action films and TV shows have rightfully been criticized (as I’ve done repeatedly with Narcos). Casual or not, there’s certainly plenty of it, as people are shot at, stabbed, and blown up throughout the film’s two hour running time. But whereas shows like Narcos and 24 fail in their inability to take violence seriously, Sicario treats it with a reverence which never undersells its effect on its characters or universe. As a result, in spite of being told mostly from an American perspective, Sicario presents a devastating and remarkably comprehensive view of life under the War on Drugs.
The tone of the film’s attitude towards violence is set in the opening scene, following a deadly shootout between SWAT agents and drug dealers. After Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) survives a direct showdown with an enemy, her partner Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya) tears at a whole in the wall, revealing a slew of mutilated bodies with their heads in plastic bags. The house is a mass graveyard, a testament to the tragic consequences of the War on Drugs and the trade it supposedly attempts to stop.
The appearance of the bodies themselves are the first sign of Villeneuve’s sensitivity to violence. They’re grotesque and disturbing, forcing the viewer to come to terms with the pain involved in the deaths. Rather than letting us off easy, Villeneuve uses a close-up on the first bodies found, making the brutality abundantly clear and unavoidable. As with the gore on NBC’s Hannibal, it’s exaggerated, but in a way which emphasizes the violence’s visceral nature and the pain its victims feel. It’s only after Villenueve establishes the horror of the bodies that he cuts to show the other corpses throughout the house, showing just how many times that horror has been duplicated.
Not content to merely let the viewer ruminate on the gruesomeness, Villeneuve then shows the agents vomiting from what they’ve just witnessed. Although they should, hypothetically, be more accustomed to such sights than the uninitiated audience, there’s no way to steel one’s self for what they’ve uncovered. Instead of presenting them as hardy soldiers who’ve developed impenetrable emotional callouses, Villeneuve emphasizes their humanism and shows the impossibility of adjusting to the sort of thing they find. And before the viewer can develop a callous, there’s an explosion, and we suddenly have more bodies to fuel our emotions. It’s a punishing prologue, but one which feels absolutely necessary for representing the brutality of the War on Drugs.
Things only get worse once Kate gets to Juarez, where she, along with government official Matt (Josh Brolin) and mercenary Alejandro (Benecio Del Toro), seeks the man responsible for the explosion. In the opening leg of their journey, they encounter hanging decapitated bodies reminiscent of the corpses in the house. The images have an obvious shock value, but their presence doesn’t feel cheap or unearned: The film never ignores the value of human life, even if it depicts people who do so.
As the agents cross the border to return to the U.S., they’re surrounded by the threat of violence. Even before it materializes, Villeneuve’s intimate close-ups inside the cars highlight the terror of feeling like a target, as everyone seems like a potential threat. Villeneuve doesn’t just examine the consequences of violence, and scenes like this explore how its possibility can be just as painful as the act itself.
But the possibility soon becomes reality, and Kate and her colleagues-in-arms are soon locked in a tense shootout amidst the gridlock border traffic. She survives (but has to kill to do so), and the blood on her hands leaves an indelible impact even if she leaves physically unscathed. Villeneuve’s visceral imagery emphasizes the effect of each and every killing, and Kate becomes more and more damned with every life she takes, even if her actions are hardly cold-blooded. Violence isn’t a subject taken lightly in Sicario, either for its perpetrators or its victims (and the line between the two becomes fuzzier and fuzzier as the film goes along).
Villeneuve demonstrates this in part through the directness of his style, but also through his precise and purposeful decisions to turn the camera away. As Alejandro tortures Guillermo (Edgar Arreola), the image of his disregard for his victim’s personal space makes for a distinct depiction of the power dynamics between the two. But Villeneuve chooses to focus on a gutter as the worst of the violence happens, leaving the viewer to imagine what exactly occurs based on the sounds of Guillermo’s anguish. In this way, Villeneuve forces the viewer to become an active participant in the torture, filling in the visual gaps with one’s own images of brutality. Sicario is an unflinching film, but it’s one which isn’t afraid of substituting visual images of violence for auditory indices when they can leave a stronger impression of its consequences.
And not only does the film depict the violence, but it doesn’t shy away from the effect it has on the characters. When Kate first takes a plane with Alejandro, he naps, but his itchy trigger finger as he sleeps reveals how violence is never far from his mind. Kate smokes, corrupt cop Silvio (Maximiliano Hernández) pours alcohol in his coffee, and both call attention to the coping mechanisms necessary for what they witness on a regular basis. As much as Sicario’s treatment of violence succeeds due to the film’s direct representations of murders and corpses, no less important are the ways in which the survivors deal with them.
Or don’t, as the film’s haunting final scene reveals. As Silvio’s now fatherless son plays soccer and his widow watches, explosions go off in the background. Mother and son look briefly in the direction of the destruction, but it’s not long before play resumes and life as normal in Juarez carries on. In showing the tragic banality, Villeneuve invites the viewer to consider the reality of life in a city in which such violence is simply part of an everyday routine. In some ways, it’s a removed depiction of violence, but one which shows an important perspective on the realities of living in Juarez. As all of the perspectives in Sicario represent, war is hell, and Villeneuve’s respect for the gravity of violence creates a grueling but essential portrait of life in a war zone.
Max Bledstein (@mbled210) is a Montreal-based writer, musician and world-renowned curmudgeon. He writes on all things culture for a variety of fine North American publications. His highly anticipated debut novel will write itself one of these days, he assumes.