War: a conflict carried on by a force of arms, is a state or period of armed hostility, which most of us in Australia, if we are honest, do not want to know about or ever encounter.
French Canadian director and writer Denis Villeneuve has certainly crafted a thought-provoking thriller with the new Lionsgate movie Sicario, one that will keep you riveted to the action and then stay with you long after leaving the theatre.
It is about a war; a struggle to achieve a goal, which can have noble intent, although mostly it’s a dastardly conflict likely to result in death.
Giants in their field, the trio of actors who take the lead roles give truly phenomenal performances, each at the top of their game.
Puerto Rican actor Benicio del Toro as the perplexing Alejandro, packed full of pain and frustration, for me was a stand out; beyond good.
Sicario means ‘hit man’ in Mexico, where kidnapping and the war on drugs is a daily struggle.
This is a politically aware intellectual thriller, one where there are no heroes at all, only victims.
Smart, stylish, gritty and gruesome, with a brilliant music score and quite outstanding cinematography, Sicario will test your perceptions about the line between right and wrong as you are faced with decisions that need to be made, despite the reality you are in being riddled with ambiguity.
The difference between those wanting to live in the light rather than those who choose darkness is the massive morally guided gray area in between.
This can be a movable feast dependent on your attitude or point of view.
The world’s largest consumer of cocaine is the USA and what happens in Sicario will cause you to challenge your own ideas of right and wrong as it reveals just how far some members of society, once they start straying from a moral pathway, will go.
It’s not a pretty scene. Those involved in the drug trade are seduced by power, more money and riches and don’t have a moral conscience or value for human life as they strive to achieve their goals.
The aftermath of the violence they use can be profound.
We meet Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) an idealistic, hard, lean, confident and vulnerable FBI agent working near the border area of the US and Mexico.
She is trained to work with a team of Swat members to rescue hostages and when they raid a house in a housing development on the outskirts of a sprawling suburban town, they discover that things are not as they seemed.
Quite unbelievingly they find over 40 people murdered and packed in plastic within the walls of the house, including those they were sent to save.
Victims of the violent drug war, it’s a gruesome find, one that affects them all.
Particularly when two of the team are subsequently blown to smithereens when they attempt to enter a padlocked cellar.
Kate however suddenly finds herself with an opportunity to cross over into the world of drugs to help take down the leaders.
She jumps at the chance, not knowing what is to come.
Dramatically descending not only into the dark, but also a place where tension packed gripping moments of madness occur on a daily basis, Sicario is more than ruthless.
We move through an enormous depth of misery and despair, heightened by the portrayal of victims on both sides.
Dirty dealings, an unwinnable war, Sicario reveals a scorched inhospitable landscape and the aftermath of violence, allowing us to explore and experience multi-layered personalities and impossible plans.
Academy Award winning Josh Brolin as Matt Graver is pitch perfect with his approach to the personality of CIA operative he portrays.
Graver is in charge of an operation that doesn’t seemingly have to abide by any rules of engagement. He’s convincing, engaging, fair, tough and sparing in his style, although he is as quietly ruthless as Alejandro in his own way.
Matt Graver’s objective is to bring down one man, the head of the cartel who ordered the killing of all those walled up in the house, as well as whole families that he wipes out on a daily basis.
This once included the family of Alejandro, who Graver has now emboldened to enact revenge. Graver will facilitate it to happen because for him the choice is clear. He knows they can only really win the war by fighting one battle at a time and so will use any weapon, even a man in pain to succeed.
Benicio del Toro gives yet another finely drawn performance as Alejandro, another on the trail blazing path he has forged since he won an Academy Award for another drug war saga Traffic (2000) beating off Russell Crowe, Tom Hanks and Geoffrey Rush. He’s phenomenal as the man who lost his wife and child in hideous circumstances, ordered by the man he’s sent to take out.
Kate while morally black and white is conditioned to working essentially in a man’s hard and dangerous world.
She still remains open to her emotions, although she knows she can only control the consequences when she has the lead
She is keen to be on the mission but only because she naively believes the chase will fall into her world, one where morality still means something.
Given very little briefing, the men surrounding her keep her ‘in the dark’ to suit their own ends’.
The good guys are bad guys too and the storytelling ensures we are drawn right into all the decisions and actions they have to make as the violence around them erupts and escalates.
Finding herself sitting next to the dark, elusive and brooding Alejandro, at first Kate does not know who he is or why he is with them.
He’s quietly authoritative and soon she finds herself feeling entirely out of her depth, with the aim of the mission she has been cleverly seconded to be on, unclear.
“Nothing will make sense to your American ears and you will doubt everything we do,” Alejandro warns Kate.
She is thrown into a dilemma when the convoy of SUV’s she is riding in as an observer suddenly cross the border into Mexico instead of going to El Paso as she thought. Then she is left wondering just what it is she is there to witness and why?
Will it be a line crossed too far?
When stuck in a border car standstill they are caught in gunfire and she has to draw her weapon and respond she is left confused.
English born Emily Blunt until now has generally been associated with ‘nice movies’. She is in very different territory here especially when she has to choose whether to support the reality of what actually does go down on her watch.
We all feel her pain and feel her helplessness, faced with what she knows now. Once that very fine line of morality is crossed there is no way back.
Increasingly we are all drawn into the war on drugs because the evidence is all around us of not only how addictive they are, but also how they lead to violence, distress, death and mayhem as generations of families are destroyed.
Squalor rides right along with the whole drug scene with mounting rubbish littering streets, naked dead men hanging from bridges and messy mouse infested interiors of houses where people live caught up in the milieu of madness.
Filthy, unpleasant and unhappy, at times Sicario felt as if the madness and mayhem of the torture filled Middle Ages had indeed returned.
In supporting roles, Daniel Kaluuya as Kate’s professional partner Reggie Wayne and Victor Garber as Dave Jennings her boss are excellent, as are Jon Bernthal as Ted and Jeffrey Donovan as Steve Forsing who are on Matt Graver’s team.
In the end Kate has a choice. To sign off on the successful mission making the operation to kill the head of one of the cartels legitimate, or to be a martyr and die for personal beliefs, including ideas behind the idolised American way?
It occurred to me when an audience watches James Bond kill evil drug lords or other villains in his movies somehow we are all divorced from the reality of it all.
This is because his author and the franchise have built his glamorous reputation so soundly as the ‘good guy’ on the side of good not evil, we just accept that we can suspend reality and not even consider it could be us.
Here however all the lines are blurred and we are left feeling compelled to consider the complexities of war and the consequences of the decisions made in context with what is happening around you, rather than a theory you have believed in since say university days, which in reality doesn’t work.
The cinematography is so graphic it makes you ache with the reality of it all, particularly the scene where they are using night glasses to negotiate the difficult terrain to gain access to one of the tunnels drug lords use to smuggle their cargo across the Mexican border.
The director has done a sterling job, not only making the action real and plausible, but also making us confront our innermost thoughts and feelings about what does go down after they get Alejandro across to the other side, where he completes his secret mission.
Kate tries to stop Alejandro as she has finally worked out what she thinks is happening.
However he hasn’t time to explain and so dispassionately shoots into her protective vest to put her out of action while he leaves.
Emily Blunt was quoted as saying about the war on drugs “…there is no bad guy, there’s corruption on both sides. That’s why the problem is ever increasing and ever more complicated to solve” and she was so right.
One of the final scenes have children playing soccer in the dust of a small town in Mexico when gunfire interrupts play, but only for a moment, as the weary worry lined faces of the people watching and the young children playing, accept it as an aspect of daily life.
All we can be sure of is the cycle of violence will continue despite taking out one of the main bad guys, because it has now become habitual. Its a scary unsettling thought. The actors have certainly convinced us that it is very real.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2015
In Cinemas around Australia
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