(WARNING: Spoilers for Sicario below, you've been warned.)
I recently got around to seeing #Sicario, one of 2015’s most critically acclaimed films from director Denis Villeneuve, of #Prisoners fame. While watching, I found myself almost un-consciously watching with a critical lens, instead of just simply sitting back and enjoying the film. After watching the film, I put together some notes as to exactly how and why I was doing this, and I have come to the conclusion that this was the director’s intention.
Sicario manages to cover a huge variety of themes in its almost exactly 2-hour run-time. These include:
- Government/CIA approved torture
- Sexual violence
- Violence as an everyday reality in Mexico
- And much more… (revenge, powerlessness, necessary evils)
What is also impressive about the film is how accessible these themes are to even the most passive of audience member. I’ll explain:
All of these examples are sometimes very obviously alluded to, and some are given a line or a scene to accompany them, as if to emphasize them. Some critics have slated Villeneuve’s attempts as being a little too "on-the-nose," but I disagree. He has stated that this is a film for the general public, more so than any other film he has made. I believe that he wants the audience to notice and discuss these taboo topics well after leaving the theater.
I will now look at specific examples of the above themes within the film itself, beginning with:
Government Approved Torture
This taboo subject is alluded to a number of times throughout the film. Beginning with the scene where Guillermo is being tortured and made to drink water, is an allusion to the technique of waterboarding, where the victim is forcibly made to drink excessive amounts of water while being barely able to breath. Government approved torture is also referenced in one of the film’s final scenes after Alejandro (played by #BeniciodelToro) catches the man who killed his family: Faustio. After a tense discussion, Faustio laughs at Alejandro, saying, “Who do you think we learned it from?” This is an obvious aim at the US government, as the film’s main antagonist is admitting that he and his men learned their torture methods from the CIA the very organization that Alejandro is representing in Mexico.
Sexual violence is alluded to (and I know I’m saying the word alluded a lot) multiple times throughout the film. During the aforementioned torture scene, we are lead to believe that they are not waterboarding, as we see Alejandro take off his belt and place the water container that he was holding on the floor. As the camera pans away, we hear rhythmic breathing and the scene cuts to black. The audience is left to assume that Guillermo was raped, or at least sexually assaulted.
Later on in the film, Kate (Emily Blunt) is strangled by Ted (Jon Bernthal), an act that is sometimes attributed to a "crime of passion." The emphasis on sexual violence is made even more clear by the fact that Kate's strangling happens after she is about to sleep with Ted. Later on, Kate is detained and made to lie on the floor by CIA agents and is told: “Just let it happen, it’ll be over soon.” This is the language of rape.
This theme is less explored, but is more a background for the movie, as the plot focuses on corruption within state-run organizations. A key moment in the film is when Kate is told that the CIA is actually working in tandem with one of Mexico’s biggest cartels to bring order to the land. This theme is brought center stage when Kate goes to her superiors to ask just what she is supposed to do in Mexico. They tell her it is best not to ask and that her mission “comes from the top.” This is an obvious dig at the higher ups in the US government and their involvement in so called "proxy" wars in both the Middle East and Mexico.
Violence As An Everyday Reality In Mexico
This theme is highlighted a number of times throughout the film. First of all, almost as soon as Kate enters Mexico, she sees headless bodies hanging from a bridge. However, moments before this, her convoy passes a group of men playing squash against a wall nonchalantly. The city hasn’t been brought to a stand-still; quite the opposite. Normal life has resumed. These men seem unfazed by the three hanging bodies just miles from where they are playing. Later on, when Kate and one of the agents are watching the town they were just in from a distance, explosions can be seen, gunshots can be heard. This doesn’t look like the quiet town that Kate and her unit were driving through — this looks like a war-zone.
Finally, I believe that Villeneuve ended the film with this point/theme in mind in the final scene. In it, we see a soccer match played by local children. It is a familiar scene and one that we should all recognize. However, the match is interrupted by the sound of gunfire. Then the film ends. Villeneuve is making us see how violence is a part of everyday life. The people watching the game don’t even seem scared or make any attempt to run; it is normal to them.
Now, this is a theme that isn’t given a scene or a line to accompany it. However, if you look between the lines, I believe that this theme actually presents itself. Alejandro’s family is killed by Faustio and as retaliation, he kills Faustio’s entire family while they eat dinner. What makes Alejandro any better? How is his revenge justified? This, in turn, leads onto deeper questions such as how right or moral is revenge, but I don’t have time to cover that here.
As I have shown, Denis Villeneuve highlights these topics with (at least) explicitly, as if to emphasize their presence. Some of these lines are admittedly quite in-your-face, especially lines such as, “Who do you think we learned it from?” However, Villeneuve is taking on the role of journalist here. He is using his film as a tool to educate general American (and world) audiences who have no idea of what is going on right outside their doorstep.
In many ways then, Sicario is almost quasi-documentary in its goal of informing the audience. It is also a film that I believe should be studied. Each scene is almost separated from each other, and most of the time you don’t need context to understand the message that Villeneuve is trying to send across (the torture scene, the soccer scene). It is a film that makes you feel uncomfortable, uneasy, even scared. Villeneuve wants you to feel these things. He has even described the film as a "dark poem." This is quite true, considering that the film both starts and ends with acts of violence.
What do you think was the strongest message of Sicario?