Rated R. Running time: 2 hours 1 min.
Our content ratings (1-10); Violence 8; Language 7; Sex /Nudity 3.
Our star rating (1-5): 4
Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter.
How could you fail to perceive that I was not speaking about bread? Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees!” Then they understood that he had not told them to beware of the yeast of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.
Canadian director Denis Villeneuve’s and scriptwriter Taylor Sheridan’s new film really puts WAR into the War on Drugs. In response to the murderous business practices of the Mexican drug cartels the area on both sides of the Rio Grande has become a war zone—and neither side pays any heed to the Geneva Convention Rules of War. Amidst what becomes a moral morass Emily Blunt’s idealistic FBI agent Kate Macy experiences a rude awakening to what the War on Drugs has become—from a law and order or justice cause to one of cruel revenge by means of operations that ignore international boundaries and the taking into custody and treating those arrested with fairness.
The film begins with a note informing us that the title comes from the time of the Jewish Zealots’ uprising against their Roman occupiers when a band of killers known as the Sicario hunted down and killed Romans. Then we see a SWAT team, of which Kate Macer is a member, crash into a house in an Arizona development, killing the gang members who resist. When an agent notices scrapes and holes in the wall, he tears away the dry wall and discovers a badly decomposing body. Tearing away more of the drywall, other bodies are discovered wrapped in plastic sheets or bags. All in all there are more than three dozen found, the stench now so overwhelming that many of the agents rush outside, either to vomit or to breathe fresh air. Then a padlocked underground chamber is discovered in a shed. An agent obtains cutters to open it, setting off a massive explosion. Kate, just coming out of the door to the house is knocked to the ground, and two agents in the shed are killed. The camera pulls back for one of many shots that reveal the desert landscape.
Kate and her black partner, Reggie Wayne (Daniel Kaluuya), sit outside a conference room where a group agents from various alphabet soup organizations discuss them. They decide to accept Kate onto a new team because of her experience in managing a SWAT team but reject Reggie because he is relatively new to the FBI. However, we will see quite a lot of him because he is used to chauffer the new team from mission to mission.
The group leader is Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), who smiles a lot, but gives out little information to the new recruit, telling her for now just to watch and learn. He wears on his feet flip-flops, so she wonders what agency he comes from. When he asks why she might accept her new position, she replies that she wants to get those responsible for the horrific killings in the raided drug house. Even less talkative is the Hispanic team member identified only as Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), whose glower suggests he is not a man to trifle with.
Even more exciting, and bloody than the earlier raid, is the episode of the Americans crossing in a big caravan of vans from El Paso to Ciudad Juarez. Their mission is to pick up a drug lord and transport him back to the U.S. to stand trial, though later Matt says it is to create chaos in the man’s drug cartel so those even higher up will make a fatal mistake. We lean tensely forward as the caravan moves at fast pace through litter-filled Mexican neighborhoods where naked mutilated bodies hang upside-down from an overpass. They pick up their prey from prison without incident, but then get stuck in a massive traffic jam near the border crossing, all agents looking keenly at the cars on both sides of their caravan. Sure enough, they spot suspicious, tattooed characters in neighboring cars, as well as several gun barrels. When the thugs get out of their cars, the agents also leap into the lanes, getting the drop on the goons and killing everyone of these amidst the panicked cries of civilians in the other cars.
Told to stay in the van, Kate still kills one of the attackers when he approaches her van and smashes one of the windows. Shaken by all the slaughter, and on the Mexican side at that, Kate angrily berates Matt, declaring that they have broken virtually every rule of law enforcement. Matt waves away her objections, still providing little information to her. Later at a transport terminal where groups of rounded up illegal aliens are awaiting, and Matt and Alejandro are asking cryptic questions of some of the prisoners, Reggie and she demand some answers. When told that they are obtaining some information useful for finding a major tunnel dug by the cartel through which they are funneling drugs into the US, the two accept the explanation.
However, as events, most of them violent, escalate, Kate cannot accept the methods of her colleagues. Alejandro turns out to be a grieving husband and father hunting the drug traffickers because of the horrible things they did to his wife and child. The drawn out scene between him and the drug lord, eating supper with his wife and two children, becomes almost unbearable to watch—as well as moving the film toward thriller turf instead of realistic drama. Though not a witness to this particular scene, Kate has seen so much violence during the attack on the tunnel that she threatens to expose to their superiors the dreadful tactics being used, supposedly in the name of justice, but in actuality subverting it. Were Jesus present, he might well have said to Matt and Alejandro, “Beware of the yeast of the drug traffickers!” The two veteran lawmen have become sicarios, killers sanctioned by a badge, but killers nonetheless.
Other films, such as Traffic, also deal with the moral ambiguity of the War on Drugs, but not in such a personal way as this one. Although Emily Blunt’s Kate would have emerged more clearly as a rounded character had we been shown more of her back story, the actress skillfully conveys a highly moral person wracked with doubts about the rightness of her cause. Equally good is Benicio Del Toro as Alejandro. By his souful eyes we know he has suffered unimaginable horror and grief, so that even if he had not told Kate the story of his family, we would still know enough about him to discern his thirst for vengeance, rather than for lawful justice. After witnessing what he does to the drug lord we shudder near the end of the film when he threatens Kate with his gun, demanding that she sign a paper exhonorating their team from any wrongdoing. We wonder—can such a brutal person also be an agent of grace?
There is a substory that unfolds in short scenes interspersed troughout the film. It unfolds on the Mexican side of the border and it concerns a soccer loving young boy who loves practicing the game with his father. The latter is away at night and rises late in the morning, his cheerless wife on hand to cook him breakfast. She seldom speaks, most of the talk at home being between father and son. The father is nocomittal when the son asks him about his work. We suspect that he must be connected with the drug ring. At last we learn that he is a policeman, but…
Such films as this one could never have been made in the days of the old movie code that demanded that the guilty always be punished and the good emerge victorious. The world was seen so simply back then—a world of Good Guys and Bad Guys, White Hats and Black Hats. The makers of this film declare that people caught up in the war on Drugs are far more complex, and that therefore the outcome also is more complex than one of victory and defeat. If you come into this film believeing that the War on Drugs is a simple affair, and even winnable, you will be disturbed. Indeed, no matter what you think about this so-called War, the film will disturb you, and best of all, cause you to raise questions about it. This last is the best compliment that I can pay to the filmmakers.
This film with a set of questions is in the Oct. issue of VP.