A Film Review by Akash Singh
NOTE: SPOILERS OCCUR!!!!!!!
The Hammurabi legal code became famed and infamous in equal measure, its most lasting legacy being that of the “an eye for an eye” rule. It doesn’t take a genius to understand the basic logic behind that rule of law. If someone gouges your eye out, then your legal right upon a verdict in your favor is your assaulter losing an eye as well. The appeal of such a simplistic understanding of justice is instantaneous. Broadly speaking, people find complexity prohibitive, choosing to pass over the morally gray in favor of what is clearly right and what is clearly wrong. Unsurprisingly, such a simplistic rule of law is simply unsustainable, for moral and practical reasons. On a moral level, inflicting a punishment that is the crime committed upon you lowers you to that common denominator. On a practical level, doling out those equivalences does exactly the opposite of what the justice system’s stated purpose is. If one one hand you have the Hammurabi code, on the other is the old adage of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Once again, at a certain level, that indeed makes sense. If A and B both despise C, an alliance between A and B to take out C could be plausible. In doing so, however, there is no guarantee that A and B wouldn’t be at each other’s throats after C’s demise. The Afghanistan fiasco with the U.S. supplying the mujahideen with weaponry to fight the Soviets is a prime example of the enemy principle collapsing entirely.
In the world of Sicario, there is no simplicity. The infamous War on Drugs that has gone on for what seems to be eons seems only to be broadening at the horizons with an unsettling promise to last for an eternity. At its face value, Sicario is about an elite task force’s hunt for an elusive cartel leader. Sicario’s protagonist Kate Macer (a terrific Emily Blunt), is enlisted onto that elite team due to her experience with SWAT teams in the kidnapping unit. As so often happens, the reality the audience assumes is nonexistent, transforming instead into something else entirely. The first indication of that occurs within the first few moments of the film, where a slightly heightened routine SWAT mission uncovers bodies of illegal immigrants stuffed into the walls. It’s the first real whammy to hit the audience, a signal that the film was committed to an unflinching portrait of a war most of us are privy to mostly from headlines or events that seem to be completely disconnected from the dangers of the border but are more intertwined than most people can imagine. The fiasco of the first raid seemingly launches into motion the main thoroughfare search, but Sicario is anything outside of straightforward.
The Hammurabi thematic construct is most thoroughly embodied in the character of Alejandro Gillick (a thundering Benecio del Toro), a mysterious character whose shroud only becomes thicker as the film continues. Is he working for the DEA, the CIA, or someone else entirely? Kate can’t put a pin on it and that distrust coupled with a fervent desperation that forces at the very least a grudging work respect crafts a fascinating rapport between the two. When the moment arrives for Alejandro to truly grasp the Hammurabi code into his own two hands, the film stops as if frozen in time but the suspense amazingly build until it reaches an unbearable crescendo before suddenly snapping, its shards billowing about everywhere in an unforgiving aftershock. Kate has one chance to fulfill the code herself and the moment where she makes that vital decision is telling of where the film’s sympathies ultimately lie. At that moment, Kate has lost faith in everything that she had stood for, everything that she had worked so hard for that now seemed to be nothing but a futile exercise in existentialism. In a move that might be quite frustrating at times, Sicario goes out of its way to marginalize its two seeming lead characters, Kate and her African American colleague Reggie. Outside of making key points in regards to the most marginalized characters not being white men, that aspect of the film snaps firmly into place when the final boundary is crossed for Kate. It’s not the most surprising twist, but it is amongst the film’s most sensible ones.
Sicario’s greatest asset, outside of its powerhouse performances and morally tremulous script, is how astoundingly gorgeous every single shot becomes. The great Roger Deakins, who should really be given an Oscar at some point much sooner than later, does some of his best work as he translates some of the most theoretically maudlin settings into stunningly gorgeous art. But where Deakins works his magic yet again, Sicario’s characterization of Kate is problematic. Blunt is phenomenal in the role, but where she gives it her all, the script underwrites the character far too much and far too often. Her marginalization in what appears to be her own story is a metaphorical knockout for the film, but she comes across consistently not as an experienced SWAT leader but someone who largely has no idea how to do her job. The idealism she espouses and the clusterfuck of conundrums she is shuffled through again and again are fine in and of themselves. But that is no excuse to consistently undercut your protagonist and frankly it demeans the intelligence of the script and the audience alike. On the audience front, at the screening I attended, there was a disturbing trend throughout the evening I feel somewhat compelled to address. There are very few laughs in Sicario, but somehow the largely elderly audience found it amusing to laugh at the most horrific junctures of the narrative. I find nothing remotely comic about torturing individuals, raping them, and the potential of innocent children being shot in the head. Sicario, for its character and narrative flaws, is a strong indictment of the culture of violence that the War on Drugs has essentially become and the sanctioning of governments behind it. It’s not a celebration. The defense of immoral actions in the name of the greater good is a terrifying moral to take away from a battlefield never void of death.
MPAA Rating: R
Directed by: Denis Villeneuve
Produced by: Basil Iwanyk, Thad Luckinbill, Trent Luckinbill, Edward McDonnell, Molly Smith
Written by: Taylor Sheridan
Starring: Emily Blunt, Benicio del Toro, Josh Brolin, Victor Garber
Music by: Jóhann Jóhannsson
Cinematography: Roger Deakins
Edited by: Joe Walker
Production Company: Black Label Media, Thunder Road Pictures
Distributed by: Lionsgate
Running Time: 121 minutes
Release Dates: September 18, 2015 (United States)
Image Courtesy: Fresh Wallpapers, Collider