Sicario: Subverting Genre to Expose the Banal and Unsatisfactory Nature of Evil

Sicario

Spoiler Alert

Sicario is not very entertaining in the conventional sense.  That being said, it is a good movie.  More specifically, it is a successful movie, successful at what it is trying to accomplish.  Calling it a good movie carries the often assumed definition of being an entertaining and visually stimulating story.  It is questionable whether Sicario is that. Some might call it an unfinished story, an unsatisfying story, and most definitely an unamusing story, but this is what makes Sicario a good movie.

French Canadian film maker Dennis Villeneuve has created quite an anti-cinematic, hyper-realistic and ultra-disturbing portrayal of the 21st century drug wars.  While the film does not leave you with any concrete emotional gratification, it does confront you from start to finish, with the reality of evil, hopefully allowing these realities to linger, ruminate and disturb you post-viewing.  Most significantly, Villeneuve demonstrates that a world fueled by revenge, a desire for power, and a tendency to use people as a means to an end, is a world that will ultimately leave us unsatisfied and disturbed.  This is the world of Sicario, this is a world that explores the horror and banality of evil.

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When we watch movies, we like to be entertained.  Often, we find ourselves rooting for a clear protagonist, enjoying a cathartic scene of redemption, or experiencing a moment of transcendence with the characters. Films, more often than not, follow formulas, use common tropes of the genre, and succeed or fail at meeting the expectations of the audience.  Villeneuve is quite the subversive rebel in this regard.  One might conclude that perhaps he’s just a bad film maker or that he made a bad movie.  I will argue, however, that the director merely wants to confront us with the reality of evil, knowing that many people don’t really understand or ever honestly acknowledge true evil.

One can argue that most violent films, in some way or another, depict violence and evil in a sensational and thus often glamorous light.  Even if the director is not intending to glorify the “bad guys,” or violent actions, he/she often does, simply by way of the fact these negative aspects of life are shown on the silver screen.  It’s almost impossible to illustrate evil or violence in a way that does not somehow glamorize it.

glorify violence joker resevoir dogs scarface

With Sicario, however, Villeneuve seems to challenge this natural tendency in cinema to see evil or more specifically, violence, as “cool” and consequently, unrealistic.  And this is what I find most refreshing, respectable and realistic about his project.

The opening scene illustrates the horrific experiences those fighting in the drug war face on a day to day basis.  FBI agents, tactical gear and tank included–the first to enter the bleak and banal world of the film–raid an Arizona suburban house, kill a few men we assume are villains, only to be disturbed, and vomit in a physical display of their internal conflict, as they desperately try to hold on to their humanity, after finding a gruesome display of inhumanity hidden within the walls of the home. One can bring to mind the graphic nature of the World War Two classic, Saving Private Ryan, only in Sicario, the FBI agents raid a suburban house not a beach in Normandy, and have arrived in time to witness the already mutilated, and rotting corpses mummified by plastic bags, a la Fincher’s Seven.  Wait, what?

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After the opening sequence in Villeneuve’s Sicario
FILE--Tom Hanks, center, appears in a scene from the movie
Scene from Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan
seven-the-movie
Scene from Fincher’s Seven.

The entire sequence can be likened to scene from a war film, but even more appropriately compared to that of a horror movie.  The introduction successfully sets the mood of this hybrid film and sets up our cinematic expectations; if the cavalry is disturbed, then I definitely should be.  If not by the content on the screen, then by the fact that the director has decided to synthesize two different genres.  Moreover, at the end of the scene, a detonated bomb destroys the property in what is probably the most elaborate action set pieces of the film (and it really is quite simple and minimalist); the sudden explosion leaves the entire place in dust, fogging up the protagonist and audience’s vision (the two are meant to be one), as she eventually spots a fellow agents arm which lays separated from it’s unseen body.  Villeneuve’s decision to make his opening scene a war and horror genre hybrid, seems to suggest that he is playing with our expectations of cinematic genres and tropes.  Moreover, the scene introduces the director’s emphasis on the horror and banality of evil.  There is nothing exciting, “cool” or glamorous about drug wars, and the violence that incurs, a war that in fact can take place in The House at the End of the Street.

This scene is another example of Villeneuve utilizing the horror genre. Hitchcock once said that to “subvert the cliche” was one the most effective ways to create suspense. Throughout the film, Villeneuve seems to do this quite well, setting up our expectations to build suspense, and then denying us the full satisfaction through subversion.

Another scene that exemplifies this anti-cinematic and subdued approach to film making is the prisoner extraction scene, where a mixed organization commando team, made up of men from the US Marshals, DEA, DOD, Delta Force and a woman from the FBI–agent Kate Macer (played by Emily Blunt)–convoy into Juarez, Mexico to bring in a “higher up”in the Mexican drug cartel, named Guillermo, who the soldiers/agents plan to get information from to help them with their bigger objective, an objective that remains mostly mysterious to the protagonist and the audience for the majority of the film.

This sequence was filmed very well, with a minimalist but ominous score in the background to help build the suspense.  I’m not calling the initial part of the convoy (bird’s eye view) anti-cinematic, but rather, highlighting the subdued nature of the sequence’s conclusion. Read on…

Prior to this US/Mexico border scene, the team meets at an Air Force base just outside of Mexico, where they are debriefed of their mission by a nameless commander.  The men banter playfully, and exhibit the usual male bravado and macho attitude reflecting the conventional cinematic trope of “guys about to go on a mission.”  To build the suspense, in Hitchcockian fashion, a cliche is introduced as the commander says, “anyone [even the police] who isn’t in this room could be a shooter,” only to be later subverted as there is never a threat from the police.  Though I can’t vividly remember, it wouldn’t surprise me if the words “weapon check” and “suit up” were used to conclude the briefing.  The scene builds through a birds eye camera view focusing on the black SUV convoy of five or six cars, carrying every member of the team, including the apprehensive, anxious and uncertain Macer, who like the audience, can just tell something is not right, even if it’s her own presence in the team.

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Like Kate, we are unsure about Alejandro–played by a perfectly stoic Benicio Del Toro–as he doesn’t seem to be part of any of the organizations at all.  What’s most significant, however, are two things the mysterious man says.  Upon meeting the protagonist and seeing her anxiety on her face, he says, “You will question everything we do, but in the end you will understand,” a quite cryptic and ominous statement coming from one of the most cryptic and ominous characters. Then, when the team is in the middle of their extraction, and about to pick up their target, he says to a nervous Macer, in an almost omniscient tone: “Nothing will happen here.  If there’s anything to worry about, it’s at the border.”

Surely enough, as the scene builds to it’s most intense moment, the convoy of SUVs are are backed up at the border because of a car stall further up the road.  And true to the Hitchcockian form, Villeneuve disappoints our expectation of the Mexican Policemen adding a hitch to the plan.  Instead, the hitch is very simple and banal–a border lineup–something everyone has experienced in one way or another.

But then, as the waiting time extends, they notice two cars in the line up with them, carrying Mexican thugs, who definitely fit the bill of the stereotypical cartel henchmen.  It’s confirmed that these men have guns, and as soon as one of the henchmen get out of the car, perhaps to confront the US officials who have one of their men, the elite soldiers now reminiscent of the A-Team get out of their own vehicles guns ready, surround the henchmen, and tell them to put away their weapons.  We begin to wonder if perhaps this is the part that will fulfill our desire for a high octane action sequence.  In an instant, however, the build up of intensity and suspense is quickly subdued through a sudden movement and quick gun shots, that kill the threats in a matter of seconds.  And that’s exactly what the henchmen are.  They are not people, they are threats; they are not victims, they are corpses.  It’s as if Villeneuve knew of the audience’s expectations, built the suspense around these preconceptions and then ended the scene without any style or catharsis.   There was no elaborate action sequence that we most often find in films with soldiers and thugs.  Instead of giving us a gut punch in the vein of Hollywood action engineers, like Scorsese, Tarantino, Bay (eye roll), Nolan, Ridley or Tony Scott, Villeneuve is subtle.  Villeneuve is anti-cinematic.  Villeneuve is unsatisfying. Villeneuve is hyper-realistic and because of these traits, Villeneuve is all the more disturbing.  Thus, one can argue that his scene is all the more effective as it does not entertain us, nor does it provide any emotional gratification.  Instead, we are left to ponder the ultra-realism of the events and that there is nothing cool or glamorous about it, and in fact, for the soldiers, it was just another day in the office.

sicario into the dark
A scene depicting the soldiers (and supposed heroes of the story) walking into the dark (as opposed to walking into the sunset). Another example of the Villeneuve playing with our expectations.  Another Hitckcockian element.

Through exploring the reality of the drug wars, Villeneuve, delves into the subject of evil, exposing what it is when stripped from all the glitz and glamour that Hollywood often dresses it up in.  He creates characters who never really form into human characters that the audience can love or hate, but rather, he turns them into symbols or objects, and quite fittingly so, as this seems to be a theme in the film…

From start to finish, Villeneuve shows that true evil can be found when people use one another as a means to an end.  The characters seem to be quite guilty of this. Perhaps this is in part due to Villeneuve’s treatment of the characters.  They are never fully developed.  We don’t know exactly why Kate’s character takes on a mission without really being given more information; we don’t really know the details of how Alejandro’s character becomes the “evil” that’s been done to him.  We don’t know why Matt’s character, played by a sadistic Josh Brolin is so casual about the missions.  But this isn’t a fault of the writer or director, I believe this is intended.  By neglecting to fully develop the characters, they are less humanized for us, and thus their violent attitudes, and motivations become less justified.

brolin

What is most significant is how each of the characters use each other as a means to an end.  Matt uses Kate’s character to allow him to move forward with the mission, meanwhile, for the purpose of establishing an “order to the drug war,” (a most unsatisfying motivation), Matt also uses Alejandro’s character who is bent on revenge to eliminate a cartel Jefe who took his family.  Moreover, Alejandro’s character uses the US officials to help him exact his revenge.  Even the revenge scene, which some might call the most climactic and most intense scene of the film, is ever more disturbing because as Alejandro’s character says “time to meet God” to the Jefe’s family, acknowledging their innocence, it becomes clear that he is merely using Alarcon’s wife and children as a way to punish Alarcon.  The kids are no longer humans to him, but rather, they are a means to an end.  This scene is the most gut wrenching scene, considering the fact that films don’t often (if ever) depict children being murdered.

Furthermore, Kate’s character is further used by Alejandro’s character as bait, while previously being used by Ted’s character to get information for his boss.  But here’s the kicker…Most significantly, Villeneuve uses Kate’s character to represent the audience, a mere observer along for the ride, ready or not to be used and disturbed along the way.

sicario blunt

One of the final scenes in the film further emphasizes this theme of using people as means to an end.  After deciding not to shoot Alejandro, who we learn is actually one of the villains, Kate, representative of the audience, blurs away into the background, while Alejandro, representative of the banality and product of evil–apathetic, unlikable, and without conscience, comes into the foreground.   Through this scene two things become clear: evil is victorious, and though this may be unsatisfying, this is the truth in a godless, revenge fueled world, a world in which people use each other as a means to an end.  One can take solace knowing that if we are left unsatisfied by this ending, it is only because it is an unfinished story, for what story is considered complete in a world without God and when evil wins? (but I digress).  The second idea that becomes clear to me, is that perhaps, similar to how the characters are guilty of using one another, Villeneuve is guilty of using us, the audience, as a means to an end.  As I have highlighted, he constantly preys upon his audience’s expectations of film tropes and genres through out the film, and uses these preconceptions, ultimately deciding not to deliver, in order to dissatisfy us, merely to emphasize the point that evil and violence isn’t satisfying. It’s as if similar to the men’s treatment of Kate’s character throughout, we too are merely used to help make Villeneuve’s point; we are a means to an end, the end being the dark truth that true evil is horrific and banal.

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“You will question everything we do, but in the end you will understand.”  Her decision to not kill Alejandro at the end is open to interpretation.  Perhaps as she stood on her depressing patio (that she was just previously warned to avoid for a while) she was simply scared, perhaps she didn’t want to become like him, or perhaps she finally understood the nature of evil, and in a tragic way, agreed with what had just happened.

But do we understand ?

To conclude, I will return to the film’s title, Sicario.  The movie begins with a brief dual definition in which I have elaborated on.  In Mexico, Sicario means hitman, but its etymology comes from the word Sicarii, Jewish resistance fighters (including the apostle Simon) who formed a cloak and dagger society to murder high ranking violent Roman oppressors in order to incite Rebellion, or in the words of the film “stir the pot.”  Sicarii were Zealots who believed their land was taken away from them and that the Romans deserved their violent fates.  Alejandro was the Sicario who felt justified in his mission because of what had happened to his family.  Right or wrong, a Sicarii or Sicario is another example of our world’s tendency to justify violence, a tendency that is often seen in cinema and a concept that Villeneuve is trying to subvert.  Through using a synthesis of genres that more often than not, glorify and justify violence (and evil) due to their stylistic and glamorous depictions of it on the silver screen, Villeneuve manages to exploit our expectations of these depictions, disappoint us and create Sicario, a film that is subversive to its own name, and to the glorification and justification of violence.  And so while we question the subdued nature of the film, and the motivations and actions of the characters and events, hopefully “in the end,” we understand that the film should ultimately be unsatisfying because violence should never be satisfying and that in truth, violence is just another characteristic of the banality of evil.

from a distance
Macer is asked if she wants to “see something cool.”From a distance, like the audience itself, she views the horrific and banal nature of the violent gunfights within the drug war, that for the distanced viewer, can pass for a spectacle of fireworks. Though this distance keeps us safe, it also disables us from seeing the reality that Villeneuve tries to pull us into.
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