The Director’s Cut: ‘Sicario’ Takes Aim at American Consciousness

Tara Coughlin ‘19
Contributing Writer

In a world of media saturated with glamorized violence and ambiguous consequences, director Denis Villeneuve’s “Sicario” takes us to a place where violence and its consequences are visceral, raw and immediate. The film opens with a S.W.A.T. team raid on a suburban home in Arizona, where they believe hostages of a drug cartel are being held. They do not find the hostages, but they do find forty bodies hidden in the walls. The brutal, intense tone of the film is made clear here.

The audience follows Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), a young and idealistic F.B.I. agent who is recruited by the smarmy but seasoned Matt Graver (Josh Brolin). The two work together on a specialized task force to discover the location of Mexican cartel leader Manuel Diaz (Bernardo P. Sacarino). Along for the mission is Alejandro, (Benicio del Toro) a mysterious agent of few words with knowledge of the cartel and its hierarchy.

As the only woman and American on the task force, Kate is a fish out of water as the team moves into the alien territory of Juárez, Mexico. It is here that the power of Blunt’s performance comes through, as she watches mutilated corpses hanging from bridges and exchanges gunfire with cartel members on the highway. Her eyes hint at weariness and sorrow, and her horror is palpable to the audience.

Villeneuve is not one to shy away from violence or its affects on the human psyche. Both his movie “Prisoners” (2013) and “Sicario” deal with humankind’s proclivity to commit extreme acts of violence as well as the obsessive need for closure. Whereas “Prisoners” took place in the cold northeastern setting of Pennsylvania, Villeneuve transplanted his violent themes to the dry and deathly world of Juárez, Mexico. The seemingly never-ending terrain offers no chance of refuge for the inexperienced Macer, a reality that is made hauntingly clear as she is consistently framed against the expansive Mexican sky.

As this setting forces Macer’s idealism to give way to confusion and horror, Villeneuve forces the audience to realize how removed this ever-present violence is from the collective American consciousness.

One agent states after the end of a highway shootout, “This will be on the front page of every newspaper in America.”  He is immediately rebutted with, “No, this won’t even make it to the front page in Juárez.”  Most Americans know of the ongoing drug war along the borders of the United States, but Villeneuve makes a point of showing its impact on the agents who experience it firsthand but as well as Mexican civilians.

It is chilling when rapid gunfire in the distance does not seem to phase a group of boys playing soccer. “Sicario” accepts the fact that this chaotic violence will not be easily nor ethically resolved anytime soon, and with resignation, the once-idealistic Macer does as well.

One Comment

  1. michael chen says:

    Just wanted to say that the quote is actually “This won’t even make the papers in El Paso.” I think its important to further elucidate on your point that Villeneuve is making a point here to specifically highlight that Americans would not give a fuck about a border shootout, hence the El Paso, despite how heavily we see love to biblethump about the war on drugs

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