In Denis Villeneuve’s bleak new film “Sicario,” the FBI’s attempts to sedate the drug war across the United States-Mexican border serve as a metaphor for general American idealism. Centering on by-the-books FBI agent Kate Mercer (Emily Blunt, her typical luminance dimmed, but still present), the film follows her experiences as she’s recruited to a task force run by Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), who is searching for members of a drug cartel. The rather naïve Kate, eager to make a difference, joins immediately, but doubt begins to fester as she’s taken to Juarez, Mexico, where she—as well as the entire FBI task force—have no legal jurisdiction.
The final piece of the puzzle is Alejandro (Benicio del Toro), a mysterious presence on the team. He repeatedly tells Kate that she reminds him of someone important to him, but he declines to explain further.
However, while the man initially remains an enigma, his secrets are eventually revealed in the film’s best sequence, a devastating scene in which Kate’s true role on the force comes into focus.
The film delves into the moral ambiguity within the American legal system. Is it better to follow the law and end up hurting more people, or should we act in a more morally questionable way if the end result is better? While certain characters seem to offer an opinion on this matter, the film purposely refuses to answer this question and is all more powerful for it.
From a performance standpoint, the film is meticulous; British actress Emily Blunt, the British actress who was granted American citizenship this summer, inhabits every step of Kate’s transformation as her moral resolve begins to crumble. Her final scene is shattering. Josh Brolin is rather perfect in the seemingly simple character of Matt, a man initially while hung-over and wearing flip-flops at an FBI meeting, but whose role grows in depth and stature throughout the film. Benicio del Toro delivers a far more riveting turn, creating a man whose past defines him entirely. The climax of the film belongs to him entirely, as he hijacks the narrative from Kate. By the time his narrative arc fully comes to fruition, the audience understands what drives him.
Apart from the moral implications of the film, it is also notable for the gender dynamics it displays. Kate is shown to be incredibly competent, so one assumes that she was chosen for this new assignment over her male partner due to her strengths as an agent. However, this initial gender role subversion proves not to be the case. The true nature of her job
could be seen as sexism on the film’s part, but I would argue that the film is instead pointing out the sexism of the world instead. Producers of the film attempted to have screenwriter Taylor Sheridan change Kate to a male character, but he refused, as this initial gender reversal (which, by the end, almost becomes a validation of typical gender roles) would not work with a male protagonist. It’s a strong choice that adds another layer to the story.
If Kate, with her idealist, naïve views, could be seen as America, “the land of the free and the home of the brave,” and she is also equated with an outdated idea of femininity, then the film seems to argue that, at least in this Latin American drug war, America is the helpless damsel in distress.