Netflix may be great for a bone-chilling series or a teen drama dripping with self-referential candour, but it is also jam-packed with classic cinema. With Netflix Flashback, we’re taking a view on some of the best movies on the platform, this week looking at Benicio Del Toro’s starring role in Sicario.
What does one make of Taylor Sheridan’s screenplay in which the principal character, FBI agent Kate Macer (played by Emily Blunt), is a passive observer for a good part of the drama? Macer is given the assignment to accompany CIA operatives to investigate the botched FBI Swat team raid of a Mexican drug cartel hideout in Arizona, where dozens of corpses are found, and two agents lose their life when an improvised explosive device goes off. Macer’s assignment is mandatory since the CIA must be accompanied by a FBI agent during any domestic investigation.
Macer is partnered with a CIA undercover operative Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) who makes it clear they’re going after Sonora Cartel lieutenant Manuel Díaz. But instead of going to El Paso, Texas, they end up in Juárez, Chihuahua, Mexico, accompanied by the sinister former Mexican drug prosecutor Alejandro Gillick (Benicio Del Toro). It will soon become apparent that Macer is way in over her head as Gillick refuses to play by any rules in dealing with ruthless cartel members. In fact, Macer will soon realise that Gillick is almost as bad as the cartel members he’s attempting to hunt down.
On the way back to the US with Diaz’s brother Guillermo in tow, Macer almost gets herself killed as cartel members attempt to rescue the hapless sibling on the Bridge of the Americas at the Mexico-US border. While Macer is undoubtedly happy to see Delta Force Special Ops come to the rescue on the bridge, their method of shoot first and ask questions later (which foreshadows some even more advanced extra-legal shenanigans at the film’s end), impels the intrepid FBI agent to question the entire moral imperative of the CIA team’s mission.
It’s only at this point that Macer becomes a more active participant in the drama that things get more interesting. First, she and her FBI partner Reggie Wayne question Graver and Gillick as to their true intentions, and they learn that the real target is Sonora Cartel boss Fausto Alarcón—Graver and Gillick are attempting to disrupt the cartel’s drug operations which may draw Diaz out and lead them to the bigger cheese, Alarcón. But naïve Macer almost mucks things up entirely by attempting to gather records at a bank that services Diaz’s money launderers (Macer is overruled in her efforts to arrest the bank officials as it could tip off Diaz and his cronies as to what’s going on). Meanwhile, Gillick has extracted information from Mexican illegals about a tunnel between US and Mexico at a border station.
Macer falls in deeper over her head when she attempts to have a one-night stand with a corrupt Arizona cop. Gillick saves her from being strangled and later extracts information from the cop regarding other corrupt cops, utilising methods that border on torture.
The CIA achieves its objective when they’re able to track Diaz who is now going to meet with his boss Alarcón. Gillick has no time for by-the-book Macer who regards his mission as completely unauthorized and illegal. One of the film’s most exciting moments is when Gillick shoots Macer (she’s wearing a bulletproof vest) and he orders her back through the tunnel to the US side.
Graver explains that Alarcón’s overreaching has upset the balance of power in the drug cartel world and he must be eliminated—re-establishing the Medellin cartel as the sole arbiter of power. Gillick also has a personal score to settle with Alarcón—his wife and daughter were murdered by Alarcón’s thugs.
The focus shifts from Macer again, with Gillick providing all the histrionics at the denouement. Proving how ruthless the drug cartel world is, Gillick murders Alarcón’s wife and children as the drug lord helplessly watches at the dinner table at his estate in Mexico. Then Gillick finishes Alarcón off, not before mentioning the fate of his own wife and daughter to the kingpin.
The whole point of the film is that in the war against Mexican cartels, there are no rules, and those assigned the task of taking them out, will employ any tactics at their disposal to achieve their objectives. Macer, who believes in the rule of law, proves to be wholly impotent and irrelevant in the fight against evil. Her impotence is highlighted when Gillick forces her to sign a waiver at gunpoint, claiming that all his actions were legitimate.
In the beginning, we expect the heroic Macer to be successful in her quest to bring murderers to justice “by the book.” But in a complete reversal, it’s those who refuse to play by the book who are triumphant. Macer is simply a cog in the wheel who is completely over her head.
Despite its theme imbued with verisimilitude, not everything that happens in Sicario is completely believable (did you really believe that Gillick would have been successful in sneaking into the drug cartel boss’ compound and is so easily able to dispose of Alarcón and his entire family?).
Still, Sicario raises some important questions about the nature of extra-judicial actions in the fight against evil.