SPOILER WARNING: Sicario (Denis Villeneuve, 2015)
Good and evil are far from absolutes in Sicario (Denis Villeneuve, 2015) as the line between the two keeps shifting or may not even exist as all. The film works to hammer this point into the heads of its audience as it presents a cast of characters whom continually either find themselves in complicated and compromising situations, or shift the line themselves. At the forefront of the former group of characters is FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), who soon finds herself working with but at the same time attempting to resist the latter group, made up of the spook Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and the mysterious Alejandro (Benicio del Toro) in a joint agency attempt to strike back at the Mexican drug cartels. But though these classifications may seem to simplify the situations of these characters, this perception is actually far from the truth. What soon becomes apparent in Sicario is that nothing lasts forever, especially in the case of who is serving whom and to what end. Those that attempt to adopt a moral high ground or position or absolutes have no place in the new world that is emerging. Those that do not get into line will be left behind or killed, and this world cannot be escaped once it has been entered. Sicario examines the more than just the drug trade as it presents a world where good and evil are nothing more than labels for those that do not understand the nature of what they are facing.
While it is clear that the audience is meant to identify with Kate, the film does not hesitate to argue that she is wrong about her perception of how the world works. Initially believing that she is on the forefront of the fight against the Mexican cartels as she leads a hostage rescue team, Kate soon learns that she is barely scratching the surface of the force that she is fighting. None of this is to say that what Kate is doing is futile or should be discounted to the point that it discredits her, but what is revealed to her and the audience is that she cannot hope to truly make an impact on the big picture in her current state. Once she is recruited to be part of a task force that intends to make some noise, Kate soon finds that seemingly nothing with a lasting impact can be accomplished within the realm of what is “by the book” or even legal. The film leaves the moralities of Matt Graver and Alejandro unstated throughout the film as it lets their actions speak for themselves. Unlike Kate, whom the film immediately establishes as a moral center, these two characters and those that they recruit are clearly much more interested in results than they are the morality of what they are doing. Kate is initially horrified and outraged by the body count that a prisoner transport operation leaves in its wake, but she soon witnesses much more extreme measures and actions.
But though she may find herself in the middle of a world beyond anything in her moral spectrum, it is clear that Kate can never belong there. As it is revealed in the third act of the film, Kate is only on Matt’s “train” so that the CIA can operate in the United States. The big picture does not have any use for Kate outside of her title, and it is clear as Sicario progresses that Matt and Alejandro share this sentiment, as they are the agents of the larger forces at work. The gap between these two groups, Kate’s idealism and Matt’s gray morality, is highlighted following the seizing of the cartel’s money. Whereas Kate wishes to arrest the members involved and trip up the cartel’s operations, Matt instead is looking to the more extreme and far-reaching goals. In the end, Matt and Alejandro do not believe that anything short of death will stop those that they are fighting, and this is the measure that they intend to carry out.
The personal motivations behind Alejandro’s actions as he carries out a hit on cartel jefe Fausto Alarcon (Julio Cesar Cedillo) and his family do not cloud the larger implications of what is happening. Though it is clear that Alejandro wishes for the death of the man who ordered the killing of his wife and daughter, it is important to remember that the former Mexican prosecutor is acting on behalf of something that is much larger than he is. Like Matt, Alejandro only serves as the tip of the much larger spear that is being thrust into action, and all of his actions must be taken as a window into what methods are now acceptable and willingly turned to in an attempt to fight the war against the cartels. The violence that Alejandro brings with him is nothing new to the fight, but it is unique in that it is coming from that side of the fight that is often perceived to be the good guys. By remorselessly and eagerly killing an entire family, children included, Alejandro represents an escalation of the fight as he also makes it clear that nothing is outside the realm of possibility for those whom he serves.
As the film concludes, it is clear that the world that Kate has discovered does not have any more use for her. Last seen battered and emotionally distraught, it is important to note that those whom she was working alongside inflicted almost all of her injuries. Shot twice by Alejandro only to later be brutally subdued by Matt, the film highlights all of the violence that is committed against her. Kate is practically the only female character in the film, and as the film progresses it is clear that she is being used by almost every male figure around her. The one person on her side, FBI agent Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya), is last seen in the film pinned to the ground by Matt’s military goons as one tells him to “let it happen.” The rape subtext is clear in the film’s third act, and though this action is never actually committed against Kate nor does it ever appear that Matt or anyone else intends to do this to her, the actions against her cannot be discounted as simple roughness on the part of those around her. Alejandro ultimately tells her to leave and move to a small town, as she does not belong in the world he helped bring her into. Now discarded by those that have used her, the film leaves Kate powerless and broken, not by those whom she was fighting against but by those whom she was seemingly allied with.
Sicario does not ever outright state its opinions on those that inhabit its world. While it is clear that the actions committed by Matt and Alejandro are in many cases illegal and atrocious but seemingly effective, the film stops short of stating that what has occurred has had any real effect. The fallout from the death of Fausto is never shown. In a similar way Matt and Alejandro repeatedly claim that the existence of the tunnel from Mexico to Arizona was revealed to them by Guillermo (Edgar Arreola), whom the tortured for information, while in fact it was Rafael (Raoul Max Trujillo) whom first alerted Alejandro of it. In this way the film stops short of outright partially justifying the extreme actions taken, while at the same time highlighting the relentless passion with which Alejandro commits these actions. On the other side of the line are Kate and her companions who, while may be effective in their own way, cannot ever hope to have as far a reach as the CIA agents in their midst. Absolute moral positions are not acceptable to those that Kate ultimately comes up against, and the rest of the film reinforces this position of moral uncertainty. The film ends with those who are willing to cross the line, or perhaps just push the line to its extreme, in better shape than those whom attempting to uphold their relatively innocent belief systems. Sicario does not condemn any of its characters for their actions though, but it is ultimately clear that the world is far too muddled for any sort of judgment to be fair or even useful.