SICARIO: MANSPLAINING, THE MOVIE

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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)!

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6 thoughts on “SICARIO: MANSPLAINING, THE MOVIE

  1. Geof

    You are absolutely right about the misogyny of the CIA murderers and torturers – and don’t forget the racism when the head of the delta force soldiers knocks down Reggie and points a gun to his head and tells him to just let it happen. The misogyny is completely deliberate, and surely not at all unrealistic if anyone has gone on a gamers, military, or conservative comments section and made a feminist or anti-racist comment. There are different shades of it, though. Graver is just indifferent and amoral, smirking about it all the while (Brolin talked about the shit-eating grin he was going for), whereas Alejandro has a certain chivalry in his machismo or at least a sense of protectiveness about Kate, albeit as someone he feels somewhat protective of, although he does not see her as an equal, and is willing to kill her if he has to.

    The problem is thinking that Villeneuve thinks these sociopaths, rather than Kate, are in the right. All they succeed in doing is killing a cartel boss the CIA finds difficult to work with and hopefully allowing someone else to take control whom they might be able to work with better for a while (as Graver says when he pines for the days of the CIA’s close relationship with the Columbian cartel of Escobar in Medellin). But as one of the soldiers showed Kate on the roof of the building, the arrest of Guillermo Diaz set off a wave of killings, which he invited her to watch with enjoyment, and the killing of Fausto Alarcon will be no different. And the final shot is of the Mexican cop’s child playing soccer while the machine-gun fire in the background makes it clear that the wars between the cartel factions are in full swing and all the people can do is try to tune it out and hope they do not fall victim themselves.

    Kate wouldn’t have accomplished anything by killing Alejandro, he has done his job for the CIA and gotten his revenge, and she would only have lowered herself to the same level and accepted the logic of the wolves. Most Hollywood revenge fantasy splatterfest movies judge characters solely based on their ability to kill, but this isn’t that sort of movie, and Kate is exceptionally brave throughout, a bit too much so on occasion (punching Graver in the face, and later threatening to reveal what he did), and determined to fight for her values and morality. For a moment she wavered and gave in to her anger at the betrayal and tried, as a purely emotional gesture, to lash out, but Alejandro is just a cog in the world’s largest military and paramilitary regime.

  2. Hacob

    I think you hit a lot of great points here, but I don’t think the movie is ever supporting these notions of misogyny. I think it completely understands how gross/warped/fucked up it all is. I mean, from the first scene with Brolin and Blunt, you are immediately introduced to its disgusting features when Brolin, practically, immediately asks if she’s married. The misogyny feels intentional, and it feels as if the movie is commenting on that rather than supporting it.

    That being said, there was never a point in the movie where I feel like CIA operations were justified. You called Alejandro’s final act as a revenge fantasy. Did it really feel that way to you? The first person he kills when he’s on the other side is a character we’ve pretty much only known through the eyes of his child and his wife. Also, when he kills the cartel’s headhoncho or whatever’s family at the dinner table, I didn’t really feel like I was sitting in my seat saying, “Yes! His children! Kill his children!” I think the scene does a job of showing its still so very ugly. With that, I thought Villeneuve was showing that what these men think that what they are doing is right, but is it so different from the cartel? As Kate says, nothing these men are doing is by the book. It’s just brutality vs. brutality. That is why Alejandro’s land of wolves line resonated so well with me. It’s all dirty, doesn’t matter whose team you are on. Also, something that Geof did a good job hitting above, Kate

  3. GEOF, I agree with you on all points, and I agree that SICARIO pushes a very complex picture of the Mexican Drug War. I agree with your assessment that Kate’s killing of Alejandro (and by the logical extension of her story, Alarcon) wouldn’t have changed much. I also agree that her choice to let Alejandro live displays a change of perspective on her part.

    To that end, for the purposes of my essay, her bravery isn’t really on trial so much as the movie’s portrayal of her story and how it positions her within it. I’m arguing more that the movie makes her increasingly irrelevant in what’s set up as being a very personal and professional agenda to her. I’d go so far as to argue that SICARIO’s more nuanced opening about her giving way to a third act climax that’s a very stilted and straightforward Hollywood revenge killing about Alejandro does a disservice to its characters and to the true complexities of the drug war and its various factions as you spell out.

    HACOB, I also agree with your points and thank you for challenging my assertions! In truth, while Brolin’s opening questions were striking to me and raised the ghost of sexual harassment, given her previous operation and what she was interviewing for, it became clear that he was asking what emotional attachments she had. Once she became aware of that, the gravity of the interview and the upcoming mission were all the more powerful -and I loved that!

    I could also agree that the movie isn’t consciously supporting the argument for misogyny as Reggie is also and FBI agent and he too, is treated poorly. I stand by my argument because Kate is the only meaningful female character in the movie; we are told this is her story; her story is taken from us; and throughout all of it, she’s constantly condescended to and stripped of her agency. It would be sloppy structure if Kate were male, but being a female protagonist in the context of a nearly all-male movie -where those men are hostile gatekeepers- carries a significant weight.

    I agree, too, that Alejandro’s revenge killing is very striking, but the movie’s language frames Alejandro as an authority, as a power fantasy, and as having a license to brutality (arguably throughout the Juarez mission, saving Kate from Ted, in Ted’s subsequent torture, and everything up until shooting Alarcon’s family [I’d go even further and argue that the attention paid to Silvio & his family is shot so matter of factly and divorced of the same emotional guiding as the rest of the film that it’s hard to care about his or his family’s fate when obviously that would be an extremely harrowing and sympathetic real-world situation]). All of Alejandro’s language and actions throughout this mirrors the kind of casual ends-justify-the-means “FUCK YEAH” violence commonly seen in revenge thrillers. I agree that his murder of Alarcon’s family is VERY ugly, and I think that -the realization of the revenge itself- is where we’re supposed to stop liking him; not the rest of the fantasy. That said, Kate’s choice not to kill him, in cinematic language, is consent and/or validation of his actions. There’s a certain kind of dark power fantasy in that as well -the same reaction we might have to watching Walter White. We KNOW he’s a horrible guy, but some unspeakable part of us likes that he’s horrible. We buy into his faulty reasoning for longer than is sane. We like watching that horrible guy do horrible things in the name of his family. Same for Alejandro, regardless if either character is fully honest.

    I don’t argue with either of you that SICARIO paints a complicated picture of the Mexican drug war throughout, but I’d argue that this ending is far less complicated than the first third would argue.

  4. AROC

    This whole movie would have felt different to me if Alejandro’s character would have been a woman. There is no reason he couldn’t have been. But as it was, it was rife with mysogyny. Kate being ridiculed (teasingly) by Reg for not wearing sexy bras to work? The state of her eyebrows!? I wanted her to have better combat training. I wanted her to fight off Ted, not be subdued. How would that have changed the movie if she had fought him off and had him at gun point when Alejandro came in? I wanted her to beat the shit out of Graver, and for everyone to recognize that she had every right to do so. How would it have changed the movie to give her agency to seduce Ted at the bar and bring him back to her motel? The mysogyny is two fold: deliberate and unconscious by the writer. Utterry dissapointed by this movie.

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