Sicario: Exciting Political Thriller

sicario_posterThe gifted director Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Incendies) has made a searing-thriller, probing the intrigue, the corruption, and the moral mayhem that define the contemporary borderland drug wars.

Among the film’s many strength is a strong female protagonist, well played by the intelligent actress Emily Blunt.

Blunt plays Arizona FBI agent and kidnap-response-team leader Kate Macer.  When she uncovers a Mexican cartel’s house of death, her shocking discovery leads to profound consequences on both a personal and global level.

 

Kate is recruited to join a covert black-ops mission headed by a mysterious Colombian operative known only as Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro, Best Supporting Actor, Traffic, 2000) along with special agent Matt Graver (Josh Brolin). Even as Kate tries to convince herself she’s on a hunt for justice, she is thrust into the dark heart of a secret battleground that has swept up ruthless cartels, kill-crazy assassins, clandestine American spies and thousands of innocents.

The jagged line of the U.S. and Mexican border is now awash in some of the most pressing questions of our times – drugs, terror, illegal immigration, corruption and an escalating swath of dark crime that has left people on both sides frightened and vigilant. Sicario explores the journey of an intelligence operation that pushes the rules to engage with those who don’t play by any.

Says director Denis Villeneuve, “Sicario takes a powerful look at black-ops operations and the Mexican cartels. But this story is also about America, about the idealism and realism that clash when it comes to dealing with the problems of other countries.”

“It’s a movie about choices,” adds Benicio Del Toro, who dives into one of his most conflicted roles as the equal parts vengeful and tender hit man Alejandro. “It’s tough to say whether any character in Sicario is truly good or bad. Do the means justify the ends? What happens when go into a situation where you want to kill one guy and you kill 20 innocent people? You got the bad guy, but at what cost?”

“Kate is tempted by this world,” says Emily Blunt, who breaks the mold with her portrait of a fierce female character whose life is in jeopardy throughout every second of the film. “She realizes she was barely scratching the surface doing things by the book and now she wants to believe she can do something that will make a real difference. Yet the very idea of no longer following the rules turns Kate’s whole world upside down. Nothing makes sense anymore.”

Josh Brolin, who is known for characters who ply the edges, was intrigued by the movie’s subtext of big questions about values versus security and whether fighting criminals with outlaw behavior darkens hearts beyond repair. “This movie is a human mystery that you get to grab at and put together for yourself,” Brolin says. “It’s a suspenseful and emotional puzzle.”

Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan, a native Texan who grew up traveling south of the border when it was still common to do so, delving into this reality was a personal lure. Sheridan is best known as an actor, specifically for playing Deputy Chief David Hale on “Sons of Anarchy.” With the probing heart of a writer, he felt called to return to his roots to explore what had become forbidden zones over the last decade. He saw that the alluring cross-cultural border of his youth had disappeared.

“I realized that Mexico doesn’t exist anymore, the Mexico someone could just drive down into is gone. It’s become this lawless place,” says Sheridan. “At the same time, I realized I hadn’t seen any movies about how life in northern Mexico has changed, how it has become dominated by drugs and corruption, how the cartels have become militarized and how the machine of the American government has been dealing with these problems that are spilling over the border.”

The more he looked, the more Sheridan saw how much massive profits have trumped human decency, leading to a pressure-cooker atmosphere with disadvantageous impacts. The drug trade has metastasized into a major business – so large that while the flow has at times been momentarily slowed, it has never been in danger of being fully staunched.

As Sheridan started to explore how this state of affairs came to pass, he realized it was like trying to crack open a hornet’s nest. He was walking into a world of classified CIA spy programs, secret DEA deals, cartels who murder journalists researching their operations, and of “houses of death” – residential homes where no families live, but where cartel enemies are routinely stuffed in the walls. It was not your ordinary feature film research.

Sheridan started by poking around sun-seared, dusty border towns in the cactus-splattered Chihuahua Desert. At first he got a lot of radio silence. “I went all along the border. There is no interviewing cartel members, no interviewing government officials. The only way in was to gain the trust of the people who are most affected by it – the migrants who, out of need, cross this border and populate the no man’s land that lies between southern Arizona, New Mexico and northern Mexico,” Sheridan relays. “They were my resources.”

Slowly, a story emerges about a side of the war on drugs that few people ever have seen in the U.S.   It’s a tale of a war on drugs that, in practical terms, becomes a war for drugs, as various powerful parties struggle for control of the trade.

“Crime stories are usually told either from the point of view of the hero or the villain,” Sheridan notes. “This is a story in which, even when you think the villain has been caught, you realize the problem hasn’t really been resolved.  There will be another villain tomorrow.”

Sheridan was also interested in telling a personal story, of how a decent, justice-seeking person is irrevocably haunted by the revelations she finds on the border.  Kate is an unlikely character that takes audiences into the looking-glass world of Ciudad Juarez.

A steely, serious-minded tomboy, she is a woman who has always put her job and country first.  To that extent, she surrounds herself with a shield of aloneness, who finds herself more and more emotionally vulnerable as she falls down the hole of the drug war. Tough as she is, devoted as she is, nothing could prepare Kate for this world where good and evil are turned inside out, where American agents operate with the same merciless mindset as the cartels.  It’s a milieu in which doing the right–the humane–thing might bring hit men down upon you.

Kate has an intensely mixed reaction to her new black-ops colleague, especially the enigmatic Colombian Alejandro.  Intrigued by his own blood-soaked history, as well as his moments of compassion and heroism, she realizes that Alejandro is a man of extremes, defined by his ability to go from deep caring all the way to cruel remorselessness.

“I though of Alejandro as being almost Shakespearean,” comments Sheridan. “He expresses himself in soliloquies that are perceptive comments about the world we live in, and they hit something in Kate. But he is also caught up in the world he describes.”

The third member of Sheridan’s tensely-aligned trio is the alleged Department of Defense operative Matt, who can justify everything with his “any means necessary” philosophy. “I think Matt honestly believes that if it was required that you kill virtually everyone on the planet that wasn’t American to protect America, that’s what you should do. It’s `us or them’ to him. Does that make him evil? Depends on your perspective,” Sheridan reflects.

Sheridan’s script blends a breathless thriller pace with some poignant characters, but at first, the scribe encountered resistance to his film. That is, until Thunder Road founder, Basil Iwanyk, and senior vice president of features, Erica Lee, got involved.  Iwanyk perceived the screenplay aas too powerful to ignore, tense and timely, and mesmerizing in its emotional sweep. “It was one of the most beautifully, intensely, emotionally written thrillers that we’ve read in a really long time,” he comments.

The real challenge was to find a director with the fearlessness, and the gripping visual style, to really go after this story’s sharpest edges: “We needed someone able to portray both the dark and the light, who is good with complex emotions but also with big action and scope, because when the bullets fly in this story, they really fly. That person was Denis Villeneuve.”