The more I think about Sicario (2015), the grosser it becomes.
To clarify, this movie about an FBI agent assisting in the US side of the Mexican drug war has beautiful cinematography that expresses a real sense of duality. There’s a sharp contrast between wilderness & urban sprawl; between the US’ infrastructure and Mexico’s relative lackthereof; between the austerity of working class Mexican families and the opulence of the cartels; between even the empty desert sky and the oncoming monsoon –so many shots express duality, and even the film’s characters –Kate Macer’s (Emily Blunt) staunch ethics vs. Alejandro’s (Benicio del Toro’s) moral ambiguity.
That duality also plays with the dialogue, where Kate, our lens to the first act, may hear or not hear critical details, preventing us from ever completely trusting the world. There’s also a powerful moment in Juarez, on the way to a mission, where Steve Forsing (Jeffrey Donovan) comments on mutilated corpses strung up by the cartels. “It’s so smart how they do that. To make their enemies think that these people did something so bad as to deserve that. It’s so smart how they do that. It’s really smart.” Again, we never know who to trust and we never know what people’s agendas truly are.
Johann Johannsson’s pulsing score elegantly ramps up tension throughout the movie, and as I’m not great at analyzing music, I’m going to leave it right there.
But structurally and thematically, the movie gets kinda gross. And we’re going to have to get SPOILERY.
First, a quick overview of the plot.
When her raid on kidnappers goes downhill, FBI agent Kate Macer volunteers to join Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and his task force’s mission against Mexican drug cartels. She does this in hopes of avenging her fallen squadmates. The enigmatic Alejandro joins them, steadily introducing Kate to a world of intensifying moral ambiguity –including torture at the hands of Alejandro- all in the nebulous service of “stirring up the cartels.” Finally, Kate discovers the truth: Alejandro is a Columbian cartel hitman, and the mission is in service to bringing power back to the Columbians and for Alejandro to seek revenge against the drug lord who murdered his family. Kate’s role, as an FBI agent, was only to lend legitimacy to this campaign.
Notice how Kate’s story of justice/revenge eventually gives way to Alejandro’s vengeance. It’s not that they assist one another in stopping a common enemy, but that Kate is eventually cut out of the picture altogether. There’s a real sense that she’s never in the picture to begin with; more that she’s set decoration. Kate accompanies Graver and Alejandro on missions, but even when she directly asks what’s going on, she’s deliberately kept in the dark –even in situations where her life will be endangered. When she discovers Alejandro’s true agenda, she’s not brought into the story to either stop or join him, but put on the bench while he gets to work. When it’s all said and done, Alejandro forces her, at gunpoint, to sign paperwork that all actions taken were by the book –when they were absolutely not. As he leaves her apartment, she prepares to shoot him, but ultimately relents, seeing that men like Alejandro are required to bring some semblance of order to the chaotic world of drugs and gang violence.
If that were it, it might just be a poorly structured movie about an extremely relevant topic. Instead, the movie wades into the murky waters of misogyny.
So let’s talk themes!
In a simple way, it could be described as Mad Max: Fury Road being a man’s story operating with a woman’s story whereas Sicario is a woman’s story being revealed to be a footnote in a man’s story –and that she’s ultimately unwelcome and/or an annoyance in it.
While Kate is built as an extremely competent, upstanding FBI agent, joining Graver’s taskforce immediately puts her at the lowest point in the totem pole. Typical fish out of water stuff, fine, but Graver’s force either sneers at her, disregards her entirely, or –most commonly- constantly tells her not to worry about what the (all-male) taskforce is doing, often implying that the complexities of the Mexican drug war are far beyond her. We, the audience, are becoming ok with the idea of this unfolding naturally when Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya), her FBI partner joining the taskforce, demands to know what’s going on. And Graver and Alejandro tell them. That is to say Kate couldn’t be trusted with “we’re figuring out the where a drug tunnel is to piss off the cartels” without a man as an arbitrator.
Don’t you worry your little head about this.
After Kate is recorded on a bank camera after Graver enigmatically said not to enter the bank, she’s seduced by Ted (Jon Bernthal), who Reggie vouches for. When Ted nearly kills her, Alejandro rescues her and proceeds to beat information out of Ted. While Graver patches Kate up, she realizes that Graver used her as bait. He gently chides her about taking her hitman home, smiles, and reminds her that he said not to go into the bank.
It’s hard not to read this as “Of course it’s not our fault that you were nearly raped and killed, even though we withheld information from you. You should’ve kept your pants on and implicitly trusted us.”
What follows are four small but significant beats: 1. Kate and Reggie go to Graver’s motel room for a mission briefing, but Graver teasingly denies them entry without the password. “Moron,” Kate says to him, and he allows her in. 2. Graver’s taskforce are watching a cowboy movie when she enters. Graver turns off the TV, and they all look mildly annoyed at Kate. 3. Marching orders set, Kate & Reggie are told they aren’t included in the mission. Protesting, Graver eventually relents, but orders that Kate & Reggie are to use their own armor, to follow from behind, and not to engage the enemy. 4. Gearing up for the mission, a taskforce member yells at Kate to keep her rifle’s safety on, to keep it lowered, and just stay out of everyone’s way.
Despite Reggie’s presence, Kate is a girl in a boy’s club, and she’s absolutely not welcome.
After discovering Alejandro’s allegiances and getting shot for the trouble, Kate punches Graver who beats her down, and explains that her black and white ethics simply have no place in this world. Similarly, when Alejandro returns from massacring Fausto Alarcon’s (Julio Cedillo)-the drug lord- entire family, he forces Kate to act according to his will. Preparing to leave, he tells her to leave town. “You are not a wolf. And this will soon be a land of wolves.” Anguished at having to betray her sense of justice, Kate prepares to shoot Alejandro, but when he locks eyes with her, giving her all the opportunity in the world, she relents, weeping.
Not only are you not welcome in the boy’s club, but you could never really be a boy. You’re not tough enough. This isn’t about you or whatever you think, it’s about me and whatever I think.
And now you see things my way.
In a year of so many movies about powerful women taking their place among men or at the very least fighting for it (Mad Max: Fury Road, Ex Machina, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, and Ant-Man to name a few), it’s strange to see a movie that seems to firmly rooted in hegemony, specifically that of the patriarchy and traditional gender roles. It’s not that movies with women in hostile male environments are a problem –Silence of the Lambs rules, for example- but examples like Sicario are dangerous because they’re disempowering.
And Sicario is disempowering as hell. Kate goes from being a borderline prodigal FBI combat agent with authority and respect to having absolutely nothing left by force and will of the men around her. She’s left with no one to trust, and no world to return to. The only strength she really maintains are her morals, but even those are compromised –albeit at gunpoint. This might not be a problem if it were entirely her story. After all, there are plenty examples of this dynamic working well.
1. Silence of the Lambs (1991): Rookie FBI agent Clarice, condescended to by nearly every man she encounters, becomes a well-respected FBI agent after taking down a notorious serial killer.
2. Training Day (2001): Golden boy rookie cop Jake Hoyt’s morals are constantly tested by Detective Alonzo Harris’ corruption, and although he manages to emerge, morals intact, it comes at unfathomable personal cost.
3. Fury (2014): Rookie soldier Norman Ellison gets his compassionate heart slowly beaten from by his tank-mates and the horrors of WWII until he’s terrified by the atrocities he’s committed.
Again, the key to all three of these stories are that they remain the principle characters’ stories.
Perhaps Sicario is brilliant in that it’s the stark contrast of “reality” to the feminist fare of Fury Road, Rogue Nation, etc. This world –the one we live in right now- isn’t one where women regularly run the show side by side with men, but are frequently pushed to the side in all things from politics, sexual rights, business, and even their very opinions. Perhaps in that way, Sicario forces us to look ourselves in the mirror and recognize that we’re not as progressive as we’d like to be. That the world isn’t as idealistic as we’d like it to be, and that no matter how hard we push for it, it’ll never be a perfect world.
That’s possible. Except the last act is a typical revenge fantasy.
With Alejandro’s motivations finally clear, he kills and manipulates his way to Fausto Alarcon’s estate, where he stealth-murders his way past Alarcon’s guards. He sits down at Alarcon’s dinner table, holding the table hostage, and reminds Alarcon –and the audience- of his origin: his wife and daughters were horrifically killed. Wow, that’s generic. “It was just business,” Alarcon tells him. “It wasn’t personal.” Alejandro leans forward, “To me, it was personal.” Can’t get more generic than that. Alejandro then murders Alarcon’s wife and sons. Then he murders Alarcon and leaves.
Again, for all Sicario’s telegraphed themes of complexity about the Mexican drug war, it’s undone by a straightforward power fantasy by a character who hijacked the story.
I’d like to give the movie the benefit of the doubt in that it’s all in service of the impossibility of an ideal world, especially in terms of gender politics, but there’s already a sequel planned. Revolving around Alejandro’s character. With how Sicario ended, it’s hard to imagine Sicario 2 being anything other than a power fantasy.
In all fairness to director Denis Villeneuve, I think his work is generally very powerful and equitable. As his characters often have surprise or hidden motivations that change their narratives, I doubt the emerging themes of misogyny are intentional. That said, because Kate is the only female character outside of some minor wife characters and because the movie revolves around telling her how wrong her idealism is in the face of someone else’s idealism, it’s a little too easy to see Sicario as a disempowering.
Maybe it was a simple problem of not realizing treating the only female character with condescension would play. Maybe the role wasn’t written with that in mind. Maybe it’s because Kate had very little impact on the story’s trajectory. Maybe it’s a larger problem that Sicario’s vaulted “complicatedness” is at odds with its conclusion’s generic simplicity. Maybe its story is at odds with its themes. In any event, it’s just kind of disappointing.
At least we still have Prisoners (2013)!