Sicario and the Reflection of Confusion
by Mari Gomez
Not surprisingly, upon its release Sicario excited some controversy in the border region. There was in fact enough outcry that the studio held back a special screening of the film in the area. People from both sides of the border chimed in with their thoughts on the film's representation of the El Paso/Juarez, accusing it of a negative and bad portrayal with gratuitous depictions of violence.
Local city council member Peter Svarzbein publicly denounced the film as inaccurate, harmful and dangerous to the border image. He set up a discussion panel on opening day so that moviegoers could gather together, muse over its content, and talk about it’s depiction. Discussing the film in the larger context of the War on Drugs would be a productive way to engage in the difficult subject, except it appears this discussion was merely a defensive measure against the “negative image” a film like this might produce for potential visitors.
This preoccupation with the border image is missing the bigger issue. Obviously the casualties and brutality of the Drug War are undisputed and there are plenty of stories that will make your skin crawl, but Svarzbein’s real fear here I reckon is that no one will want to ride his border trolley for fear of catching a stray bullet. That is, the main concern rests solely on this idea that this might harm 'our image.'
Of course, I don't think that's particularly the case, nor do I think that should be a preoccupation. I found the film to be somewhat middle of the road. It doesn't specify, but one can deduce that it takes place sometime around 2010-2011, when the violence in Juarez was at its height. I feel it missed an opportunity to say something truly meaningful about the complexities of this war. A film becomes slightly voyeuristic when it contributes nothing of particular value to the conversation. This is not concern for the border image; instead, it’s disappointment at the film’s inability to be thought provoking and transcend its circumstances and setting to reach a deeper truth.
From the beginning the plot was held together through quick action and fast moving scenes, as a way to produce a sense of confusion. In many ways this was rather effective, for the audience is disoriented, always chasing the story, always just short of understanding what's happening, just like Emily Blunt's character Kate is within the story. She is thrown into a new job and responsibility and she spends a good part of the film trying to figure out what is going on.
It seems the film was sold as a story with a strong female protagonist, but I find it quite ironic that she is not only confused the whole film, but doesn’t understand what she’s doing or what she’s involved in, and worse kind of becomes a pawn for the men in charge. To add to that, she gets saved, by a man, the Colombian played by Benicio del Toro, who is a badass even in the worst of films. Of course sometimes all it takes to create a strong woman character means that you give her some vague important job and you put a gun in her hand. Overall, she's a kind of passive and static character.
The scene that pulled me out of the story happened when American a caravan of Chevy Tahoes carrying the main characters, including our disoriented protagonist, heads towards Juarez, Mexico. During the ride there is a reference to when President Taft had to take 4,000 men to Mexico when he visited Porfirio Diaz. This might have been referring to the summit between Taft and Diaz that took place in El Paso and Juarez in 1909, and during which it was amicably decided that the Chamizal territory would be considered neutral. During the meeting neither nations displayed flags on the territory. Both sides had a vested interest in the meeting: Taft was protecting large U.S interests in Mexico and Diaz thought the meeting would show him as a strong leader as the revolution stirred. In the film though, the reference seems artificial and merely to suggests that Mexico is a dangerous place. I didn’t see the connection, other than as a way to suggest the impending chaos.
As the American convoy crosses into Juarez the Mexican State police in a parting of the Red Sea-like maneuver clear the traffic and close off streets for them. They are heading to pick up a high profile cartel leader who is being held by someone, somewhere. Of course on their way they run across a scene of decapitated hanging corpses because this is the kind of thing one would run into in Juarez. That’s when one of the characters very dramatically says: “Welcome to Juarez.”
I think it was around this point in the film that I was pulled out of the story. The whole lead up to their first excursion into Juarez felt over the top. Also, it's hard for me to believe that these guys would not have special access to the American border crossing, given that they have a very important criminal in the backseat. Maybe they don’t, which makes me wonder how many times in the countless hours I’ve spent sitting in the border lanes there’s been a CIA, or FBI convoy. Even if it was some kind of covert raid, although it wasn't’ because the Mexican State Police knew they were there and were clearing traffic for them making a big old show of it. There is really no private lane reserved for these kinds of operations? Even if they did have to wait in the civilian line, why would the cartels, who obviously knew the U.S had this guy, wait to try something there? It was these questions that made the story a little hard to follow.
There is another series of short scenes dispersed throughout the film that had a similar effect. These are quick shots that are supposed to show the audience the life of a Mexican cop. We see his quiet and humble life in a poor community in Juarez. From the minute this character appears on screen I knew he would probably die. This guy always seems to be waking up and all we know is he has a small boy who loves to play soccer and who at some point tries to touch his Daddy’s weapon, which he is told not to do, showing us how this guy is a good dad. They give this Mexican cop five minutes of exposition, half of which involve him eating beans and tortillas, and expect the audience to be invested and care about him.
Ultimately it was all of this combined that made me sigh in frustration. It’s not that it shows violence in Juarez, that much is true. The brutality is true. The death is true. Although my experience in visiting Juarez during the height of it was that this war was far more elusive; it was something in the air, in people’s movements, in the solitude of the streets. It was a sense that things were hanging on by a thread, but the brunt of it was always just out of sight. You might hear gunshot, or tires screeching, or you might see a heavily armed military truck whiz by, but you wouldn’t see it. Then again, maybe I just got lucky.
In any case, it’s the way that it tells the story that seems rather forced. The film suggests that the Americans preferred when the Colombians had reign over the drug trafficking and so they are working to restore that “order.” The main problem after all, as said by the CIA agent, is that people cannot stop “snorting” that shit, referring of course to the drug that drives this entire mechanism. And so this entire operation was actually meant to help the Colombian get his revenge.
The end of the film could have absolved itself (spoiler alert!) if Kate had mustered up the courage to shoot the Colombian. Why didn’t she? Is that her accepting the order of things, even though she knows it’s wrong? If she had fired, perhaps the protagonist would have redeemed herself and the film might have gained something from it. Instead, she accepted.
I’m often quite defensive when it comes to stories about the border and Juarez, not because I’m afraid it’ll give it a bad image, since the violence, the casualties, the poverty, the suffering is all true and surely it would be great if it were represented in a productive way, so as to highlight the multifaceted effects of the Drug War. Yet, the main concern of the local politicians is always our “image” and how the rest of the world will perceive us and, in the case of some of them, how it will affect tourism and prestige and their political careers which often depend on this false narrative that El Paso is the safest city.
El Paso is often sold this way. We hear this from local politicians like Peter Svarzbein and Beto O’Rourke all the time. Yet, that particular statistic of the “safest city” has been challenged as a not so accurate way to compare communities relative safety. The FBI itself strongly discourages in using those statistics as a way to measure a city’s overall safety.
I had high hopes for this film. The truth in art, after all, lies within its own boundaries and the film stretched my suspension of disbelief a little too much. None of the characters were particularly memorable, which really should have been the main anchor of the story.
A film of a historical nature might actually tell us more about the age we live in than of the event it depicts. The film’s treatment of facts is not so much what is important, but rather it is the execution of the story that gives real insight. It is how we tell the story that indicates a perspective on something. In its approach, aesthetic, and characters these representations are a cultural reflection. If this is true, Sicario suggests that we find ourselves, like Kate, in utter confusion, disoriented, vulnerable and perplexed participants in the midst of a war without meaning, where we don’t know exactly who is in charge. That is, a war we have, to some degree, failed to understand.
This post was updated 5/27/2017. The previous version of this post contained a few minor errors. I have not revisited the film since the writing of this; the updates remained true to the sentiment of the original post.