Scene one: A nondescript house in the desert near Chandler, FBI agent, Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), and members of her heavily armed kidnap-response team makes its entrance by bursting into the living room. In a tank. Once the gunfire subsides, it turns out that there are no kidnappees on the premises to rescue. But stashed within the walls of the house are dozens of decomposing corpses that loom like hellish apparitions, quasi-mummified and with plastic bags cinched tight over their heads. Kate and other members of the team go outside and throw up. That scene is only the first of many drops on the roller coaster called Sicario (cartel hitman).
A special task force is charged with dealing with the root sources of what the television news is calling the “House of Horrors” and Kate is invited to join on behalf of the FBI. The head of the task force is Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), who is vaguely described to Kate as a “DoD consultant.” The task force’s objectives are obscure: Matt describes them initially as “to dramatically overreact” and later, “to stir the pot.” To begin with, they involve taking a heavily armed contingent across the border to Juárez to pull a cartel bigwig out of a Mexican prison and bring him back the States. The caravan of five black Chevy Tahoes—containing Matt, Kate, a dozen or so “friends from Delta,” and a mysterious additional operative, Alejandro (Benicio del Toro)—rumbles over the border bridge and is met by a fleet of Mexican police trucks bristling with machine guns. They all roll through the streets of Cuidad Juarez, Mexico, just across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas. So close in distance, so far in the safety of the rule of law. I visited Mexico in 1973, taking that very crossing. Then, Juarez was a seedier El Paso, but people were relaxed, and friendly to us.
How different the palpable sense of menace, of impending violence that is Juarez today, or in the movie. The convoy drives below a highway bridge, festooned with headless corpses hanging from the guardrails, through narrow streets with armed men eying them balefully from the rooftops of every building. Is this Mexico, or Iraq?The Americans scoop up their Mexican prisoner and hustle back over the border, while I expected some kind of terrorist style ambush. I breathed a sigh of relief once they passed out of the Mexican side, headed for America. I mean, what could happen as traffic bunches up waiting to cross through the American border station, considering the convoy consists of two task force paramilitary types, two Marshals, a dozen Delta Force (U.S. Army 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta, the Army equivalent of the Navy SEALS) fresh from combat, all armed with military weapons, plus Kate, who’s also armed. Well, they start noticing other cars among those carrying families, with brutal looking male passengers with shaved heads and tattooed faces. As the movie reviewer for The Atlantic wrote “never before have the phrases ‘red Impala, two lanes left’ and ‘green Civic, three lanes left’ conveyed such imminent peril.” Carloads of armed sicarios stalk the convoy while American families returning are oblivious and Mexican families nervously eye the red impala and green civic, hoping shooting doesn’t erupt.
In a way, this one scene speaks volumes about the psychological effects of drug cartels having their way in one country, while we are cosseted in relative safety and watch cartel violence in the movies. The cautions about the vehicles are well founded, and the sicarios are itching for a fight. It isn’t much of a fight. The Americans don’t wait for the enemy, but get out of the Tahoes pointing their guns at the sicarios, warning them to stay in their cars. They don’t, and they are dead before the tourists and shoppers can get their cellphone cameras to bear. Someone says of the shootout, leaving 9 dead sicarios, “this will make the front page of every paper in America, but a more knowledgeable guy says, “no, it won’t even make the papers in El Paso.” The task force rolls on to our side and safety. Once back, Kate is livid about the behavior of the task force and demands to know what the purpose of this “lawless” exercise was. Matt tells her “you better get ready, this is the future, Juarez is what you get when they dig in. We are shaking the tree and creating chaos.” Later, after dark, another operative takes her up to the roof of a hangar and points her towards Juarez. He says, “this is what it looks like when the chicken’s head is cut off.” What she sees is to me one of the most telling scenes in film. Tracer rounds are flying all over, muzzle flashes and strobes of police cars and ambulances and explosions light the night. It looked to me just like night firefights in Vietnam. This is what the succession plan of a cartel looks like when a chief is removed. That was one purpose of the rendition of the drug lord. The other was to get information, but this guy is too tough to break. Enter Alejandro. The drug lord’s eyes practically bug out of his head. He was partly responsible for boiling Alejandro’s–who was once a prosecutor in Mexico–daughter to death in acid and beheading his wife. Druggie gives it all up. The actual purpose of all this is to find Fausto Alarcon, the big boss, who orders so many murders daily, that eliminating him would be like, in the words of Alejandro, “finding a miracle vaccine.”
Kate’s boss tells her, “if you are worried about operating out of bounds, don’t be. The boundary has been moved.” Is this reality or a film? Yes. I would say the reality is even worse than the film, except the task force can get away with things which, as far as we know, aren’t done in real life….yet. They may need to be. Will Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, et al break the power of the cartels? Or the corruption of the politicians, police and military, which allows cartels to flourish? How does “moving the boundary comport with the rule of law? duly elected representatives are empowered to set the boundaries and move the boundaries of the law. In the countries I mentioned, they use or ignore the law for personal advantage.
Almost at the end, Alejandro invades Fausto’s magnificent hacienda. Fausto, who actually ordered the torture and death of his wife and daughter. Who orders deaths daily. He’s sitting at dinner with his wife and sons. When Alejandro joins them, they all seem to lose their appetite. I was waiting to hear Fausto’s pleas and excuses. It certainly wasn’t original, in fact it was the exact line of the sex trafficker in Taken and villains in so many other films, “it wasn’t personal.” Of course, Alejandro answers “it was for me.” The last scene in Sicario is a bunch of Mexican boys kicking a soccer ball around in a dusty field, while their mothers watch and cheer. During the game, they hear the sound of gunfire nearby. They briefly look up, then the game goes on. Just another day in the neighborhood.