Sicario could not exist without Zero Dark Thirty. Bigelow’s film follows CIA Agent Maya through her decade-long search for Osama Bin Laden, chronicling her evolution from bright-eyed young analyst to cold-blooded veteran as she moves through the murky world of America’s post-9/11 foreign policy. We watch Maya learn the values and pitfalls of torture as interrogation and commando raids so that, by the time the climactic Abbottabad mission takes place, we can feel what is at stake. And when Maya stands over the body bag containing her prey and begins to cry, we feel like we’ve been on a journey with her, not just as audience members but as a nation.
Which is, of course, intentional. Zero Dark Thirty is a propaganda piece for America’s War on Terror, a feature-length tool crafted to justify the killing of foreign nationals in the minds of Americans. While it is an effective narrative, the film also has an agenda and fulfills it. Sicario, for all its supposed ambiguity, ultimately fulfills a similar function, although the road it takes is a little subtler. Where Zero Dark Thirty depicted the War on Terror as a personal conflict between two distant foes, Sicario casts the tensions on the US/Mexico border as a churning mass of humanity in which individuals are chewed up, dismembered, and left to bleach in the sun. Unfortunately, in trying to show the ambiguous attitudes of the American public towards security on its southwestern border, Sicario focuses on a similarly ambiguous protagonist who fails to be as compelling a center as the movie ultimately requires.
Emily Blunt stars as FBI Hostage Rescue squad leader Kate Macer, who is introduced during a raid on a house in some anonymous border suburb. After a brief shootout it is discovered that the walls of the house are literally lined with the corpses of cartel victims, a horrific revelation that is undercut by some flatfoots unwittingly triggering a bomb in the shed a little while later. A still-shellshocked Macer is then quickly pulled into a glass conference room and drafted onto an interdepartmental team lead by Matt, played with the casual air of a man who wears flip-flops into FBI field offices by Josh Brolin. Without being told who Matt is, Macer is given the opportunity to volunteer to help him catch the real leaders of the cartels in order to help stop the creep of cartel-style crime north of the border, and she accepts almost without hesitation.
Next we meet Matt’s mysterious partner Alejandro (underplayed by Benicio Del Toro), who whispers some cryptic lines about how everything they do will be mysterious. Then Macer is whisked off to Juaraz to participate in the extradition of a cartel boss that turns bloody while the team crosses back into America. Here the real plot of the movie begins, as Matt formulates a plan to lure a cartel boss out of hiding using an American cartel leader and an underground tunnel between the two countries. When Macer begins to lodge complaints that Matt and Alejandro don’t do things by the book, Matt is understandably frustrated. After all, she was the one who volunteered.
The problem is that the script behaves as if Macer is a quintessential “by the books” cop who has become fed up with her department’s inability to enact change without ever establishing these traits. She repeatedly questions the legality of Matt’s actions, even going so far as to lodge a complaint with her boss at the FBI, and every time she gets the answer that the legality of what they’re doing doesn’t matter (as her boss at the FBI tells her, the decisions are being made by people who are “elected, not appointed”). Then, she ends up participating in every mission that Matt brings her on only to arbitrarily object to the final illegal thing she sees, despite the fact that her motivation up until that point for going along with Matt and Alejandro has been, supposedly, to help them catch the real bad guys no matter the cost. Her morality is capricious, which hurts the film because it is her moral compass that the audience is relying on.
The final scene goes some distance towards resolving this conflict before failing utterly. After Alejandro has completed his mission he returns to Macer’s apartment and forces her at gunpoint to sign a document approving the whole operation. She must choose between approving the mission, thereby fundamentally compromising her morality, and dying, and she chooses, tearfully, to approve the mission. It’s a moving surrender to the larger forces against which she has been struggling throughout the whole film, which is then stupidly undercut by her impotently pointing a pistol at Alejandro from her balcony as he walks away. Is she taking back some small measure of power by threatening him? Is she inviting death (in an earlier scene, he told her that he would kill her the next time she pointed a gun at him)? Is she so emotionally distraught that she doesn’t know what she’s doing? All of these are equally likely because her character is never developed to the point that the audience knows who she is and why she does what she does.
To the film’s credit, it is easy to miss a lot of these problems and get swept along for the ride. Director Denis Villenueve establishes a bleak and isolated tone through the use of gorgeous, lengthy overhead shots of the arid wastes that span the Texas/Mexico border along which the story takes place, and his use of music (the film was scored by Jóhann Jóhannsson, who worked previously with Villenueve on Prisoners) creates a heartbeat that regulates the whole film. The action scenes are tight, tense, and realistically chaotic, especially the final big shootout in the tunnel. And one particular shot of the sky at dusk as a squad of heavily-armed commandos dissolves into the dark desert below earns the price of admission alone. The actors all give performances worthy of a fleshier script, and special credit goes to Del Toro, who turns Alejandro into a much less cliched version of the "hitman out to avenge his family" archetype than the film really deserves.
If Zero Dark Thirty had a clearcut moral about the justification of force, then Sicario presents a murkier yet ultimately contiguous message. A Columbian hitman teams up with a CIA Agent in order to facilitate removing the head of a cartel, who ends up being murdered along with his family while they eat dinner in their home. Matt’s brand of investigation, without the normal red-tape involved with recording testimony and securing warrants, is shown to be brutally efficient in getting results, while any attempt at doing things according to procedure is either scoffed at or ignored. Whereas Maya was at the center of these types of operations in Zero Dark Thirty, Macer is relegated to the sidelines in Sicario, functioning almost solely as the audience surrogate who gets to tag along and see the dark side of American foreign policy. She has her objections but ultimately goes along for the ride because she’s promised a righteous end, which is ultimately what she gets.
But unlike Maya, Kate Macer is not a fully-developed character with whom the audience can identify. While we may disagree with Maya’s methods, by the end of Zero Dark Thirty we at least understand her motivation. Without a similarly well drawn protagonist, Sicario functions as a view into a world that remains as uncertain and unknowable by the end as it was at the beginning. It’s a gorgeous view, but it feels incomplete.