A movie about the “war on drugs”


At the end of the excellent movie Sicario, Benicio del Toro puts a gun to Emily Blunt’s face and tells her that she should move to a small town where the rule of law still exists because the place where they are – the U.S.-Mexico border – has become a land of wolves and she, unlike he, is not a wolf.

del Toro, who previously played a man who became a wolf in the 2010 movie The Wolfman, thus implies that he has murdered and will continue to murder because he recognizes that the land where they live is no longer governed by human law but rather by a primordial order. In such a time and place, humans must either flee or heed the call of the wild: master or be mastered, kill or be killed, eat or be eaten.

It’s an interesting argument in and of itself but moreso because the movie has already presented other, very different arguments as to who the titular hero, the assassin, is and why he must exist. This abundance of arguments betrays a lack of confidence in an otherwise perfectly confident movie about confident men. Why?

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Sicario begins with a text that explains the ancient origins of the word “sicario”, a name for Jews in first century Judea who resorted to assassination in order to expulse their foreign overlords, the Romans. This is the movie’s first argument for why del Toro’s character, the assassin, exists: he is a nationalist freedom fighter.

(Presumably, the criminal organizations are the Roman occupying force to which the opening paratext refers. Yet the good guys consist primarily of a Special Operations team returning from the most recent war in Afghanistan. Just who are the Romans in this scenario is a question the film unwittingly raises but does not explore.)

The movie then introduces us to Emily Blunt’s character whose job it is to rescue people who have been kidnapped; i.e., to prevent them from being killed. But she has arrived too late and not only are all the kidnapped already dead, the place where these lifeless, mutilated bodies are gorgeously displayed is itself a death-trap that kills two of her colleagues while maiming others. (For the remainder of the movie, her boss is shown with a wound on his forehead.)

This is Sicario‘s second argument: we, the good guys, are too late. We must act more quickly – decisively, differently – if we are to prevent further deaths. The movie next introduces us to just such an accelerant: the CIA, as represented by Josh Brolin.

There are many ways to describe how the CIA has acted in Latin America and other parts of Pax Americana. This movie, like Zero Dark Thirty before it, settles on two: “above the law” and, possibly for this reason, “effective”. Immediately we know Brolin’s character is both, because he is able to wear flip flops to meetings and can go for days without sleeping – requiring only power naps on charter planes.

In order to save more lives, Brolin argues, Blunt must join him and Benicio del Toro in sending a message to the unseen villains who have already killed so many and will otherwise kill again. If Blunt wants to prevent more dead bodies, she must join them in carefully producing dead bodies of their own.

This is the movie’s third argument: that the organizations engaged in kidnapping, murder, rape, torture, extortion and, yes, drug trafficking, in Mexico, Colombia and the U.S., only understand a language of violence; i.e., the language of war. In other words, the only way in which the good guys can communicate with the bad guys and persuade them to not kill more innocents is to send a signal via violence. This is assassination as negotiation. Where law enforcement has failed, warfare will succeeed.

Much of the rest of the movie consists of Blunt et al assembling this message as well as an introduction to the conversation already underway between rival drug cartels, U.S. and Mexican law enforcement and many hapless victims – almost all Mexican. (This last detail is to the story’s credit.) Said conversation consists of the display of dismembered bodies accompanying narcomantas, explosions, tracer fire in the night sky, etc.

Benicio del Toro’s character, a former lawyer (i.e., a rhetorician), has become fluent in this language. He is able to successfully communicate with the bad guys by inserting gallons of water into their mouths (so as to make them speak the truth) and/or his finger deep into their ears (so as to make them better hear their interrogator’s questions).

When Blunt overhears del Toro engaged in a conversation in which he is called out as working for a rival cartel, the movie quickly moves on to give us a new set of arguments, in rapid succession, to further explain the lawless violence that we are witnessing:

  • the CIA believes that the only way it can manage the threat that drug cartels pose to U.S. interests at home and abroad is to reduce the number of cartels to one so that the U.S. can thus more efficiently negotiate and/or fight against a single enemy;
  • the murders that the CIA, along with Special Operations forces, abiding law enforcement agents and del Toro’s character, the sicario, are committing are a “vaccine” against the greater epidemic of death brought on by the cartels;
  • if the 20% of Americans who used illegal drugs would stop doing so, there would be no need for the good guys to commit murder and/or engage in (illegal) warfare under the guise of law enforcement
  • del Toro became a murderer – he performs as a ninja in the movie’s final act, single-handedly killing eight men, two children and a woman –  because his wife and daughter were murdered by drug cartels. Thus he seeks a personal revenge;

Each of these arguments is, again, interesting in and of itself but combined with those preceding as well as the final invocation of wolves, they become a kind of meta-argument: the world is complicated, violence simplifies it. Alas, this is the same argument at the heart of one of the most consequential and devastating phrasings of the last half-century: “the war on drugs.”

Perhaps, it is because contemporary society has begun to question the validity of a “war on drugs,” let alone its success, that the movie finds itself on unsure footing when it tries hardest to be steadfast. There are too many rationales offered when a single one would have sufficed: “we’re at war.” The absence of that word, “war”, from the movie’s dialogue is striking. With whom are we at war? What conventions govern our warfare? When can we declare mission accomplished?

It is understandable that a mass-market movie would find it easier to communicate the intolerable suffering of Mexicans by invoking this, the dominant discourse of “Drug War”. It requires an imagination greater than we may yet possess to argue convincingly both for and against war. Unfortunately, by relying on the propaganda of professional warriors, a movie that is otherwise as rich in nuance and well-made as movies can be is trite and shallow in its attempt to provide us with a convincing answer to whence the sicario.

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Early on in the story, an American warrior played by Jeffrey Donovan makes one of the movie’s most startling and profound arguments – possibly, against its own implicit morality. “It’s brilliant what they do,” Donovan says, admiring the display of dismembered bodies alongside a narcomanta. He goes on to explain that the cartels violate and then display the bodies of their victims so that their audience comes to believe that the victims must have done something truly evil to deserve such a fate.

What movies show and don’t show – by framing and editing, for example – are a similar form of argument. Given that the movie is primarily an action thriller, the one argument I found most underserved is that del Toro’s character is on a personal mission of revenge.

After killing a cartel leader’s family, del Toro commands the leader to finish his meal amidst the bleeding bodies of his loved ones. Then, seconds later, the sicario changes his mind and kills the leader in an apparent act of mercy – one that is inconsistent with the very murders he has just committed.

More likely, it is the director (or studio) who is showing the audience some mercy by cutting this scene short. It is a lamentable lapse in resolve for they thus deny the audience an opportunity to answer for themselves the question posed by del Toro’s stated motivation. Quite simply: when will he be satisfied?