Every day, millions of people use drugs. They scrounge for money, find a dealer, and get high. That high comes with a price. Many drug users become swallowed up in the fog of addiction. Others push their bodies too far and overdose. But the consequences stretch even further. With demand, comes supply. Drugs are peddled by ruthless cartels that sneak their product across borders and kill anyone who gets in their way. United States agencies fight these cartels day in and day out. That fight is the subject of Sicario.
In Spanish, “sicario” means “hit-man.” The hit-man in question is Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro). Alejandro exists in the gray area of the war on drugs, where the good guys look a lot like the bad guys, and the ends always justify the means. Our window into this murky world is FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt). Macer volunteers for an interagency task force designed to track down the cartel responsible for a tragedy on U.S. soil. But Macer gets more than she bargained for. The deeper she travels down the rabbit hole, the more disillusioned she becomes.
All hail the return of Benicio Del Toro. After a string of mediocre roles, the dark haired mystery man is back. How fitting the subject is drugs. The last time we saw Del Toro this good was in another drug movie, Traffic. Sicario can’t compete with one of the best movies of all time, but this is still a terrific film in its own right. And Del Toro lights up the screen once again.
What makes Del Toro electrifying is the complexity he brings to the table. We know there’s so much more to his characters than what we can see. He teases and hints, revealing just enough, but never too much. We like Alejandro and we’re scared of him. He’s gentle and menacing at the same time. Del Toro nails it. Lionsgate thinks so too. They’re already discussing a sequel.
But Alejandro isn’t our main character. That task belongs to Emily Blunt’s Kate Macer. It’s been a while since I’ve seen Blunt with an American accent. I was captivated by it. Kate is a strong woman. We first see her leading the charge on an FBI raid. Yet, she’s also vulnerable and sensitive. Her accent helps here. Kate is the girl next door who can take you out if things go south. She becomes the perfect conduit as we journey from order to chaos.
And then, there’s Josh Brolin. Fresh off his blandest character to date in Everest, Brolin reminds us what he’s capable of. He plays Matt Graver, the leader of an off-the-books task force designed to shake up cartels and pounce on their mistakes. Matt is a modern day cowboy. He shows up to the office in shorts and flip-flops. He cracks jokes, chews gum, and has a twinkle in his eyes no matter how high the body count gets.
Three great actors. Three great characters. Seeing them spar with each another is worth the price of admission alone.
A Violent World
Sicario is a bleak movie. Director Denis Villeneuve doesn’t pull any punches. This is a violent world. We see what the cartels are capable of which makes the moral dilemma of our response more challenging. At the same time, Villeneuve shows restraint. This film is about atmosphere, not blood and guts. Torture is hinted at, but shown sparingly. The violence is grisly, but not overdone. We see what we need to see. Nothing is glorified.
The soundtrack amplifies the mood. The theater walls shook in my viewing as the rhythms pulsated with fear and death. Hope left this fight a long time ago. Villeneuve captures this with a beautiful attention to detail. He lingers on small things – an object dangling from the rear view mirror, a metal grate in the floor. The shots are deliberate. We’re pulled in deeper and deeper. And the more we see, the more we know that none of this is okay.
We’re Not Winning
How do we win the war on drugs? First, according to Sicario, we have to throw the rulebook out the window. You want to play by the rules? Great. Knock yourself out with petty arrests and prosecutions. The real fighters are in the trenches. The real fighters are capturing, torturing, spying, and shooting. Get a name. Get a location. Beat a guy up. Let him go. Watch where he goes. And maybe, just maybe, get to the big dog and put a bullet in his head. That’s justice in the real world.
Don’t like that? Neither does Kate. She flips out and tells her boss what’s going on. He tells her not to worry. Everyone already knows. In fact, the knowledge stretches up to the highest levels of authority. He says, “If you’re afraid of operating out of bounds, you’re not. The boundary has been moved.” Yes, the boundaries weren’t working, so we moved them. We win now by becoming our enemy.
Maybe that would be okay if there was a shred of concrete evidence that we were making a dent or actually winning. But there isn’t, and we’re not.
Carver from The Wire summed it up best. He said it’s not even right to call the fight against drugs a war. “Why not?” asks Herc. “Wars end,” Carver replies.
Making Drugs Legal
There will always be drugs in the world, and there will always be people supplying them. If “winning” means a drug-free society, keep dreaming. But we can’t give up either. Drugs flush people’s hopes and dreams down the tubes. We need to fight them, but we need to do it with a different set of tools. Violence doesn’t work. Kill the head of a cartel, and another one pops back up. Kill every illegal drug supplier in the world tonight, and a thousand more will rise up in the morning.
We need to start thinking outside the box. We need some fresh ideas. Here’s one: make drugs legal. Follow the path of alcohol and tobacco, and end prohibition on illegal drugs entirely. Remove the cartels by placing drugs in the hands of licensed, regulated suppliers. Let the police go back to stopping people from hurting other people. Let the war on drugs be fought in our churches, schools, treatment centers, and social institutions. No one thinks cigarettes are cool anymore. We won that battle, and we did it without prohibition. I know it sounds crazy. I thought so too once. Then I heard this guy talk:
But hey, what do I know? Maybe Captain Christ is off his rocker. Maybe making drugs legal is a horrible idea. Fine. Come up with a better one. Because here’s what I know for sure: what we’re doing now isn’t working. Drugs are being sold and used like never before, drug cartels keep sprouting up no matter how many we put down, and people are being killed every day in a drug war we can’t win.
The word “sicario” has its roots in Judaism. The term was used for Jewish zealots who killed the Roman invaders of their homeland. Those Jews felt justified in their violence. After all, didn’t God use them to slaughter wicked people before?
We too feel justified using violence against the cartels invading our country. But in so doing, I fear we’ve become the very evil we claim to be fighting. Brolin’s Matt talks about the plight of drug users as he smacks his gum and draws his gun. Does he really care? Do we?
The fight against drugs is a righteous one, but we can’t defeat it with instruments of wickedness. Violence and vengeance may win the battle, but they will never win the war. We need new ideas. The status quo seems tolerable until the consequences hit home. Maybe that’s what we need to change our mind – a visit from the “sicario” himself. We need to look Alejandro in the eye, feel his gun on our temple, and see the kind of people this war is creating.
Be careful, though. Once you see him, it’s already too late.