Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario is a thriller about the drug war starring Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, and Benicio del Toro. It’s getting rave reviews, is already considered a financial success, and will probably win quite a few awards. I had a feeling it would fit into a wider set of Obama-era war on terror fiction for a few reasons. First, Villeneuve had previously made an appearance on this blog for his 2013 film Prisoners, part of a series of “morally ambiguous” torture films in which anguished heroes do evil things for the right reasons. Now, I haven’t seen either of Villeneuve’s other films, Incendies and Enemies, but given what happens in his movies I’ve seen, I have to assume that both have moments where the hero has to pull someone’s fingernails out to save the day. Second, since its release a couple weeks ago, the film has garnered almost unanimous comparisons to Francis Ford Coppola’s warfare-and-madness classic Apocalypse Now. Finally, friend of the blog George Bell told me that the film had every criterion of a contemporary shoot-and-cry—and boy, was he right. Sicario is that film, but it combines a lot of insidious messages into something new.
As I’ve outlined in previous blog posts, and in greater depth for my upcoming book, the shoot-and-cry, cloaked in faux “moral ambiguity,” is the dominant narrative framework for middle- and high-brow films dealing with the military and the homeland today. It’s necessary to specify that these are films about “the military and the homeland,” rather than just “war,” since these films engage in a conscious blurring of the lines between wartime and peace. This new kind of American film is the result of an endless war, prosecuted by someone liberals like, who has both escalated it overseas and made countering an enemy within a cornerstone of his policies. Sicario in particular is a new escalation, reflecting the state’s creation homeland security as a nebulous category of militarized, lawless, endless force.
As is always the case with these American shoot-and-cries and “morally ambiguous” torture films, most of the discussion from paid critics and middle-brow aesthetes on twitter gets some fundamentals wrong. First, the prime point of comparison for Sicario shouldn’t be Apocalypse Now, although that film is important. More accurately, Sicario has the DNA of Zero Dark Thirty cross-polinated with the earlier spook thriller The Recruit. Coppola’s Apocalypse Now is, of course, loosely based on Joseph Conrad’s 1898 novella Heart of Darkness. According to film professor Neda Atanasoski, Heart of Darkness is “the touchstone of post-Vietnam US historical fiction.” Heart of Darkness is about a descent into a moral void, resuscitated by ethical feeling and ultimately, redemption. According to the narrative, only by having one’s naïve assumptions revoked by an ugly reality can someone incorporate that reality and progress morally. Obviously, this doesn’t lead to a critique of imperialism, since Conrad was a big fan of the transformative power of the British empire. And just like Conrad wrote Heart of Darkness while waving the Butcher’s Apron, these “morally ambiguous” films are about re-writing evil as a gray area.
Sicario is worth paying attention to for a few reasons. First, the film’s reputation and subject matter give it clout as a cultural reference point. The film is hailed, by people paid to do this sort of thing, for grappling with serious moral and political questions. This is a signal that the viewing public is supposed to give weight to the ideological messages that this film imparts. Its release also signals that Villeneuve deserves to be considered alongside Katherine Bigelow and Christopher Nolan as a mediator of centrist anxieties over American power. And Sicario may be unique among these films in that its premises are even murkier to identify. All these films wallow in misery in order to obscure what they’re saying, to seem “ambiguous” when they really have an uncomplicated ethical stance. Sicario uses the main protagonist as an audience surrogate to an extraordinary degree, and the horrors she’s put through leave the viewer seemingly bereft of neat conclusions. But the film has discernable messages and subtext, echoed by the filmmaker, which are easier to pick up on if you know what the dominant messages are that Hollywood’s putting out about American power-projection.
The film is like Zero Dark Thirty in that one of its primary concerns is depicting US state agents acting criminally for the good of national security. Both films also give the audience a gorgeous and highly competent woman to identify with, whose character is ultimately a cipher for narrative reasons. But where Jessica Chastain’s Maya is always at arm’s length from the viewer, Kate is very directly the audience surrogate. I can’t remember the last non-experimental film I’ve seen that uses formal techniques so stridently in order to suture the viewer into the protagonist’s perspective. From the intimidating, oppressive musical score to the mysteries surrounding the task, the viewer is placed firmly in Kate’s subject position. And where Maya is monomaniacally devoted to her task, Kate is more ambivalent.
This where the Colin Farrell vehicle The Recruit becomes a useful point of comparison, because both Farrell and Blunt’s characters embody the same archetype. They each represent a figure brought to my attention by the great podcast series The CIA and Hollywood, from their episode on the 2001 thriller. The hosts point out that in keeping with the CIA’s origins in blue-blood secret-society types, a lot of spy fiction features what’s called in occult circles the “willing initiate.” The willing initiate is initially an innocent, who’s offered a chance to be inducted in a secret fraternity. Once they join, this person learns the group’s dark ways, becoming a part of the circle themselves to gain some kind of higher purpose. In the case of the clandestine services, the parallels are the cloak-and-dagger tasks of blackmail, subversion, and murder, for the “greater good” of protecting the homeland.
Kate’s ambivalence, which sets her apart from Maya, comes from her character’s origins and what she’s being initiated into. Kate, as an FBI agent, is coming from the world of “traditional policing,” a world of building cases, making arrests, and securing convictions. When Kate is first given the chance to make a difference, by entering the shadowy world of deep-state tradecraft, she has to symbolically volunteer. Josh Brolin’s Graver tells her that the world he represents, the realm of off-book black-ops, is the only place where change is affected. He offers her the opportunity to go after the guys that committed the crimes which opened the film. Benicio del Toro’s Alejandro plays bad cop to Graver’s good cop. Alejandro opens Kate’s descent into their world by warning her “None of this will make sense to your American ears, and you will doubt everything that we do, but in the end you will understand.”
Once she has been initiated, she sees that the dirty war on drugs really does make a difference. After a nerve-wracking operation in Juárez, she sees for herself how they “shook the trees,” just like Graver said they would. She tells her partner Reggie that “We’re not even scratching the surface, they are.” Initially, Kate’s successes come from her ability to follow orders, as when Alejandro’s advice saved her life on the bridge. Kate’s failings come when she insists on keeping one foot planted in the civilian world, represented by her partner Reggie. She starts to have reservations about the methods employed by the black-ops world, and clings to her archaic ideas of legality. The first time she disobeys Graver’s orders, it nearly gets her killed. With her civilian mindset, she starts to prove inadequate for the new kind of hybrid war that’s being waged around her. However, though she endangers her own safety, she never truly threatens the mission—Graver and Alejandro are too competent, too tactically and strategically brilliant, and too accustomed to civilian fecklessness to allow her to fuck up their op.
By the end of the film, Kate proves too wedded to traditional moral norms to survive long-term in the shadow-world to which she’s been exposed. By the end of the film, she’s been broken (a notion that Emily Blunt repeats in interviews). During her journey, Kate’s—and the audience’s—entire moral world has been upended. Kate’s willing initiation into the realities of homeland security shatters her because it runs so contrary to what she believes American values to be. Like other spy fiction, she learns that truth, trust, and morality are all relative. Kate’s journey through Sicario’s narrative doesn’t lead to a satisfying conclusion for her character, which seems like ambiguity—that million dollar-word that’s an indicator of depth, maturity, and probing intellectual inquiry. That’s what reviewers are saying, anyway: that Sicario offers “no easy answers.”
But while Kate goes through a distressing journey, the viewer can and will draw some conclusions from what they’ve seen. Though their methods may seem unsavory, Graver and Alejandro save Kate’s life at every turn, and she herself admits that they’re the ones making a difference. Though Alejandro is harsh, and even terrifying, his ultimate motives are relatively pure, and he comforts Kate during her lowest moments. And the enemy they face, the insidious cartels, is the embodiment of absolute evil. Though Kate herself, with her liberal mindset, can’t hack it in the world of black ops, the film leaves little doubt that the dark world she glimpsed is the American people’s best defense and only hope. “You will not survive here,” Alejandro tells Kate in one of the film’s closing lines, “You are not a wolf, this is the land of wolves now.” Kate, like the audience, is helpless. They’re disoriented by what they’ve seen, but they know that the only thing that made a difference was strong-willed tough guys with drones overhead, M4s at the ready, and waterboards back at base. The effect is paralytic, because the film affords no comfort other than the fact that the deep state is out there, with all its guns drawn and no laws fettering it, ready to do violence on our behalf. This is the new normal—the good guys look like bad guys, but it’s OK. They keep “us” safe from the real bad guys out there, who are essentially demonic. In the end, the only conclusion she can draw is that it’s best left to the NatSec übermenschen, while the rest of us keep our heads down.
For all the marketing about “moral ambiguity,” the binaristic universe I’ve described above is unmistakably a good guys vs. bad guys story. The only difference from a children’s fairy tale is that the good guys are forced to do evil things. What’s happening here is that the villains represent absolute evil, against which only evil methods will work. When the anti-heroes do evil, their actions are re-written as “ambiguous.” As I wrote in response to Villeneuve’s Prisoners:
These films share the same ideological core, and it’s not one built on great complexity and shades of gray. The moral world these films create is one of dueling, good-vs.-evil extremes: heroes who grudgingly use torture to defeat monstrous villains. Moral ambiguity is a superficial affectation achieved by a dour visual palette, extended onscreen suffering, and a disingenuous air of ideological neutrality. Films in the “morally ambiguous” cycle obfuscate their Manichean moral framework to remake an unambiguous evil into an ethical gray-area and interpellate subjects into their authoritarian worldview.
The reason the viewer is made to identify with Kate so strongly is because she embodies the anguish that liberals might feel when they’re called on to support reprehensible state policies. When Kate stubbornly insists on following a traditional policing model, she represents all those American who blanch at torture, warrantless surveillance, or extrajudicial killings. The common complaint is that such methods are “un-American,” the domain of Evil regimes, something that we heard a lot last year following the release of the Senate’s torture report summary. These may have been “un-American,” once upon a time, the filmmakers say, but the rules have changed, because now we’re facing absolute evil. It’s there on the film’s poster: the desert wastes surround Kate, and within that dark head of hers are the violent men who are ultimately our protectors. By the end of the film, she and the audience are made to believe the authoritarian credo that “we sleep safely in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would harm us,” a phrase that could serve as the epigram for this entire genre.
The ideological purpose of these films is to work through and expunge liberal resistance to police state tactics. The ruling class, and their employees in Hollywood, believe such quaint democratic notions to be hopelessly archaic. What these films are doing is modeling the reconciliation between liberal ideals and police state-reality. By the end, Kate has been schocked-and-awed into acquiescence with the policies she found so reprehensible. The output of artists like Villeneuve, Nolan, and friend-of-the-CIA Katherine Bigelow is meant to model this compliance with the status quo, to demonstrate what resignation looks like in practice (though I don’t count Chris Nolan as a liberal, since he seems like the kind of patrician Tory who skullfucked a pig in college). Like the President, these characters demonstrate that anything is morally defensible if the enemy is pure evil and if one professes grief.
And ultimately, I’m drawing these conclusions because these are what the film texts say. Despite the disingenuous flak fired off by the filmmakers, and the identical, imbecilic thinkpieces praising their ambiguity, the filmmakers know it too. Despite trademark cageyness, Villeneuve gave himself away in a Grantland interview, forwarded to me by George. First, he tries to play the Katherine Bigelow “I’m not telling stories, I’m depicting reality” card:
The thing is, first, I’m coming from the documentary world. I’m used to trying to see reality with a camera and bringing the will and the passion to make it as authentic as possible.
He’s not making any judgments about what goes in the film, dear viewer, he’s just dispassionately, disinterestedly striving for “authenticity.” Like journalists, those objective rebels. However, when pressed, Villeneuve provides an explanation for ideology of the film, and that of the wider genre:
One idea or question coursing through your movie is whether it’s ethical to operate outside the law. The characters played by Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro, for example, challenge our protagonist to contemplate whether the ends justify the means.
You know what? That question is a problem for me, too.
And do you have an answer?
It’s hard to understand why we work this way. I don’t respect this way of doing things, but there’s a fantasy … I’m tempted to say, “Please exist” [to those who exist outside the law]. An example, against ISIS, obviously those guys are insane. What they are doing now is insanity, it’s like Hitler. For me, it’s the same kind of evil. They don’t respect anything, they kill innocents, in the name of a god, and it’s really ugly. We cannot deal with those people. We can’t talk with them. They are mad killers.
It’s hard to combat an irrational group with a rational response.
So how do we deal with that? Knowing violence always brings more violence. I don’t have the answer, but I like to ask the question. I feel, since 2001, this huge need for Americans to have superheroes on the screen. This idea that a super-being will protect you. That this being can go above the law, but at the end of the day would be a good force and defeat the evil. This idea that this half-god exists. This need in the subconscious of America to find these gods. It’s very interesting, actually.
Do you have that need?
There’s a part of me that would. That’s what I find terrifying about Sicario. There’s a part of me that wants Alejandro to exist in a way. I don’t have the answer.
To be frank, I consider this confirmation of everything I’ve been saying about the American shoot-and-cry cycle dominating liberal war movies.
Leaving aside the question of “irrationality”—drugs and death squads are capitalism problems, rooted in material conditions and paid for by rational actors—Villeneuve has overplayed his hand if the aim is to play-act ambiguity. Both Villeneuve personally and the film text itself express an ideology that only well-armed American “half-gods” acting outside the law can keep “us” safe. Villeneuve draws the parallel to superheroes, like Nolan’s billionaire vigilante Batman. Of course, Villeneuve can’t bring himself to actually say that he wishes for authoritarian state death squads to protect him—he ever-so-diplomatically doesn’t “have the answer.” But he not only has the answer, he provides the answer, right up there on the screen. If you’ve ever thought the saying “scratch a liberal, find a fascist” is too harsh, this is where it comes from. Remember that even Noam “anarchist in the streets, Democrat in the sheets” Chomsky starts entertaining fascism when the subject is climate change. But cultural reasons prevent Villeneuve from openly calling for fascist rule, both because that would look bad during a press tour and because he’s a liberal. Overt authoritarianism is considered the domain of the right, a big-tent coalition that includes actual fascists. As a documentary filmmaker and a Canadian living in Hollywood, Villeneuve and his friends likely find such appeals uncouth. However, it’s a complex question, and he doesn’t have the answers, but don’t we kind of need people like Alejandro? If you were in Kate’s shoes, if you’d seen what she’s seen, wouldn’t you say please exist, too?
Still, maybe these films are more “ambiguous” than I’m giving them credit for. On a narrative level, if there was any ambiguity in these films, we could expect them to have diverse thematic concerns. But if what these films are doing is re-writing evil as good, then we could expect them to appeal to traditional sites of authoritarian anxiety and to repeat authoritarian narratives, no matter how varied the surface trappings. The films I’ve categorized in this genre take place all over the world—Zero Dark Thirty in Langley and Central Asia, Prisoners in rural Pennsylvania, and Sicario around the Mexican-American border. Despite their settings, all of these “morally ambiguous” films deal primarily with the family, or the homeland for which it’s used metonymously—as Woodrow Wilson, the godfather of 20th century liberal imperialism said, “the State is the Family writ large.” And that which surrounds the homeland, to keep the Bad Guys out, is the border. Not only is this true in a general sense, but particularly for the US settler empire, the dominant logic of American imperialism is the Frontier. This has never changed. When President John F. Kennedy publicly marketed an expansive American project to use both soft and hard power to roll back decolonization, he called it the New Frontier. American service members in foreign theaters of occupation commonly refer to them as “Indian country.”
Where Prisoners operated on the level of the family, and Zero Dark Thirty the level of the nation, Sicario is unique in that it deals with the Frontier, and the nation, and the family. Sicario is a film about “themes of the American Old West”: the defense of civilization against savages. The nation is threatened from the south, penetrating the border with cartel tunnels. Graver, the good cop, tells Kate that they face a ticking-time bomb. After an IED booby-trap kills two cops, he warns her that “In 6 months, every house will be rigged like that one. This is the future!” Kate has been given a glimpse of the future, and it’s an America where any condo could be a cartel charnel-house, every basement rigged to blow. The clock is ticking, the threat is real, and it’s coming to your neighborhood. When Kate’s one foot in the civilian world impels her to follow the rules, Graver reminds her that only extreme measures can keep our wives from being beheaded and our kids thrown in acid baths. The humanization of the character Silvio’s family, and the last minutes of the film, are a reminder of what’s at stake. Juárez is the murder-capital of the world, and Texas is the homeland, because there’s a border that’s defended by people like Graver and Alejandro, cowboys who’ve traded in their dungarees for desert-digital camo. Soccer games are interrupted by the clack-clack of Kalashnikov fire over in Mexico and not in America because “wolves” like them keep the homeland safe
And by the time the credits roll, homeland America comes out of Sicario looking the best of all the factions. During Graver’s big third-act exposition-dump to Kate, he reveals to her that America’s unsavory alliances are grudgingly undertaken out of humanitarian necessity. Despite the sundry crimes of the participants involved in the story, it’s the US which is acting out of desperation. It’s Latin American drug cartels that push America to do evil, according to the reckoning in Sicario’s third act. This is what they call, in intelligence circles, a limited hangout—a revelation that looks bad, but is actually a whitewash aimed to distract from a worse reality. History shows that the CIA, and the state whose dirty work it does, has no qualms about the drug business. And if America’s relationship to ruthless death squads were based on expediency, rather than affinity, it wouldn’t be Washington’s favorite technique.
But maybe I’m still not being fair. Some terrific morally ambiguous movies feature warfare or the frontier. One of my favorites is from last year: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Dawn is morally ambiguous because both the heroes and villains are well-sketched out people—or rather, primates. The protagonists are flawed beings, doing their best in a bad situation, and the villain’s motives are understandable and even sympathetic. Or one of the better American war movies, David O. Russell’s Three Kings, in which the heroes find their assumptions upended and at least one of the villains is humanized and his actions rendered understandable.
In contrast, to the genuine ambiguity of villains who are humanized and fully written there’s the faux “moral ambiguity” of films like Sicario. Like the rest of the genre, the villains are not only unsympathetic, they’re absolute evil. Koba, a CGI ape from Dawn, is more human than a single cartel member in Sicario, whose only character traits are to receive small-caliber shells to the head and chest. The same is true for Osama bin Laden in Zero Dark Thirty, or the deranged child-murderer in Prisoners. And in contrast to the villains, the dark, edgy anti-heroes are extremely appealing. The mysterious Alejandro, played by Benicio del Toro, is the most violent of Sicario’s protagonists. All of the reviews, tweets, and forum posts I’ve read have a unanimous point of consensus that Alejandro is totally awesome, and del Toro steals the show. Alejandro is the man of violent action, a desire for whose existence Villeneuve can’t bring himself to ask. The film ends with Alejandro warning Kate to move to “a small town where the rule of law exists,” because the only thing that will stop the threat are warriors like him, willing to go to use extreme tactics. “You will not survive here,” he tells Kate. “You are not a wolf, this is the land of wolves now.” Alejandro is a wolf, and the fact is that wolves are cool. It’s why the ultimate badass in Pulp Fiction is “the Wolf,” or why the morally ambiguous torture movie that’s basically an Israeli Prisoners is called Big Bad Wolves. It’s why “the US Army’s most ruthless soldier” dubbed his unit “the Wolf Pack,” and why the Turkish fascist gang attacking Kurds and leftist groups are the “Grey Wolves.” Alejandro is so cool that the film hadn’t come out before the studio announced an Alejandro-centric sequel.
The Alejandro character also plays a crucial role in exonerating the US within the film’s narrative. In the third act, when Alejandro is unleashed, he (absurdly) becomes an unstoppable force of nature. This aspect of the character reminded me most of Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh, another dark, gritty drug war thriller about the world going to hell. In Cormac McCarthy’s book, Chigurh has blue eyes, but in the trip to the screen, he was played by the Spanish Bardem. I have to observe that the narrative role of “embodiment of the violent, unstable frontier” got relegated to Hispanic guys each time, and in movies about the Mexican border as the source of homeland threat, I doubt that’s a coincidence.
According to the Grantland article that created the “Sicario = Apocalypse Now” meme, there are two kinds of war movies:
There’s Platoon and there’s Apocalypse Now. One addresses the specific hardships and adventures, acts of bravery and cowardice, and sociopolitical context around a particular conflict. The other is about conflict itself — why we find ourselves, over and over again, drawn into these acts of mutual destruction. The two cross-pollinate, of course (Platoon, with its two father figures fighting for the soul of a son, has almost biblical overtones, while Apocalypse Now could not be made about any other war than Vietnam), but it is a useful way of dividing the genre. There is Saving Private Ryan and there is Inglourious Basterds; there is reportage and there is poetry.
If we’re splitting war films down the middle, I have a more useful division: liberal war films and right-wing ones. Platoon and Apocalypse Now are both about ethical loss in the face of war and its recuperation, the differences are minor. Those are critically acclaimed, therefore liberal. Saving Private Ryan brings a “good” war to a new generation to rescue liberal nationalism from Vietnam: liberal. Inglourious Basterds is an intertextual, talky pastiche: liberal. Rambo: First Blood, Part 2 is triumphalist and wouldn’t be seen in the same room as Oscar: right-wing. Top Gun is the rare movie without a conflict; the only thing approximating a conflict is how great Maverick will be by the end: right wing. The more useful divide between war movie is Zero Dark Thirty versus Act of Valor. I mean, maybe the movie starring real, live Navy SEALs is “reportage,” but if that puts it in the same category as Saving Private Ryan then this is probably a shitty ordering system.
I suspect the reason why the Grantland list features exclusively liberal war films is because to acknowledge that there is such a thing risks indicting Grantland’s readers. If there’s such a thing as a liberal war movie, then it necessarily means that there are certain themes, tropes, and a visual syntax common to the genre. Like with any genre, that would mean that the audience is predictable to a degree, and has certain expectations that must be fulfilled in order for the viewer to be satisfied. For paid tastemakers, an overwhelmingly liberal bunch, to perceive such a thing would be to realize that the groups has biases, prejudices, and susceptibilities. Better to tweeze pubes over whether or not Apocalypse Now could’ve been made about any war other than Vietnam (answer: obviously yes, it’s based on a book about the Belgian Congo). To steal a phrase from George W. Bush: some call them the culture-industry elite, I call them Obama’s base.
People watching Sicario, and there’ll be plenty of them, will be sold “a gritty, dystopian glance at the horrors of the drug trade,” but it’s obviously more than that. As far as dystopias go, the film is almost a fever-dream for the ruling class’s ideal order: one where spooks, commandos, and cops all blend together, with the rest of us too shocked, broken, and resigned to terror to do anything about it. It is, like the rest of the American shoot-and-cry genre, the sort of thing that could only exist today, not only post-9/11 but post-Bush. In the 1990s, as the liberal interventionists of the Clinton administration created an age of “humanitarian interventions,” a new, sensitive military hero evolved from the Reagan-era hard-body. Today, as President Obama expands foreign killing and domestic policing and reactionary forces are ascendant worldwide, heroes are as anguished as the liberals who support him. Sicario is fixated on the enemy within, and the focus on the “insider threat” has been one of Obama’s key national security initiatives. In a way, what Kate goes through is the experience of any liberal paying attention to American foreign and policing policy. She’s a stand-in for anyone who’s anguished by the news they hear about the US drone-bombing a wedding here, or cops shooting a black teen there. What Kate does is model the desired response. For someone with a more irenic worldview, the last 6 years have involved a lot of this sort of thing: that closet peacenik I voted for is sending more troops to Afghanistan? Now the president’s going to drone American citizens? Wait, now we’re allied with al Qaeda, what happened to the freedom-loving rebels? Kate’s brief journey into the dark world of homeland security black operations reconciles the audience to the ugliness of what the US police state does.
Given the target audience, it doesn’t do this through a flag-waving celebration, but by leaving the audience stunned, disoriented, and with a feeling of dread and resignation. It takes very little for reactionaries are to applaud state murder—the only exceptions are when the victims are undoubtedly creatures of the right. Liberals respond to an entirely different vocabulary, reliant on moral suasion and flattery of their sophisticated self-conceptions. The reality of keeping you safe is ugly, the film says, and it may even look immoral. But the alternative is too horrible to comprehend. And Alejandro is ultimately right: in the end, Kate has witnessed horrible, criminal things, but she finally understands why. What these films are trying to do is get everyone else to understand, too.
Herewith, an in-depth reading of the film text. For those who have seen the film and are interested in the specific details of why and how Sicario gets its message across, here it is:
The film opens in Arizona, as a heavily armed SWAT team sets up a perimeter around one of the innumerable beige condos that litter the American west. It cuts to the inside of an MRAP armored vehicle, where we meet the protagonist, FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt). Blunt, her partner Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya), and the rest of the SWAT team blast into the house, where they discover drugs and bodies stuffed into the walls. As the Phoenix police are checking out the house, cops in a backyard toolshed set off a booby-trapped IED, which kills two officers and rattles the team. A CNN report points out that 42 bodies were discovered, and that the explosion signals a deadly escalation in America’s war on drugs.
Back at headquarters, Kate and Reggie are sitting outside a conference room, where higher-ups discuss the two agents. Kate is a multi-year veteran of the FBI’s kidnapping squad, supremely competent but relatively green. Reggie is a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan and a law school grad, on the squad for 18 months. Josh Brolin’s character, introduced as a Jeffrey Lebowski-esque oddball, picks Kate to be on his interagency taskforce. Matt Graver (Brolin) gives Kate the option to go after the big guys responsible for that day—to join the real fight—but she has to volunteer herself. She does.
The next thing she knows, Kate is driven to an air force base. She boards a charter flight with Brolin and Benicio del Toro’s Alejandro, who doesn’t introduce himself and speaks in terse phrases. Like Graver, Alejandro is supremely cagey about what three-letter agency he represents—maybe DEA? DoD? CIA? They fly to Texas, and the next thing Kate knows, she’s sitting in a room with more mysterious G-men, and now Delta Force operators, hulks with beards, kuffiyehs, and M4s. Here, Kate learns that she’s not going to Texas, but Mexico. Juárez, Mexico, one of the most dangerous places in the world. She tries to get some answers from Alejandro, but she’s not ready for the truth yet: “None of this will make sense to your American ears,” he says to Kate, “and you will doubt everything that we do, but in the end you will understand.” If she wants answers, they’ll only make sense once she’s gotten her hands dirty, after she’s been neck-deep in shit.
And as Kate is initiated, so is the audience. As she is shuttled around in jets and black Homeland Security Chevies, the camera gives imposing bird’s eye-view shots of the surrounding urban and desert landscapes. As their convoy zooms into Juárez, the clanging, droning score overwhelms the viewer just as Kate is overwhelmed by her surroundings. As they pick up their quarry from a Mexican prison, and drive past beheaded bodies strung from an overpass, the camera darts into dark corners and down alleys, giving the audience Kate’s hyper-alert perspective. The effect is to create a strong emotional link between the audience and their surrogate, as she enters this dark world.
And as the audience overwhelmingly identifies with Kate, they come to see her protectors as she does. One of Alejandro’s rare bits of advice early on was to “keep an eye on the [Mexican] federal police. They’re not always the good guys.” She is warned that if the cartels try to hit back, they will do so on the bridge linking them to the Texas border. The driver sitting shotgun in Kate’s SUV identifies two cars full of cartel hitmen about to engage the convoy, whom the Delta Force team kill when the hitmen draw their guns. For Kate, who has continually emphasized that she’s not a soldier, this is a new kind of firefight. As her eyes dart around on what’s happening, she sees a Mexican federal cop in her peripheral vision, drawing a bead on Kate. Thanks to Alejandro’s advice, she puts a bullet in his skull before he can put one in hers. The convoy makes it back to Texas safely.
Once they return, Kate is (somewhat improbably) disgusted with what she saw on the bridge. “Shooting civilians,” she screams at Graver, “that was illegal,” accusing them of being spooks. Graver, who has doled out little in the way of exposition to both Kate an the audience, tries to give her the big picture: “Do you want to get these guys,” he asks, in reference to the Phoenix horrorshow. “In 6 months, every house will be rigged like that one. This is the future!” Kate, then, has been given a glimpse of the future. Which does she prefer, Graver is asking, 8 dead cartel thugs and a crooked cop, or an America where any condo could be a cartel charnel-house, every basement rigged to blow. This is why they chose just her and not Reggie, “your partner wasn’t ready for it.” Graver wants Kate to step up to the plate, and show the strength for this new kind of war. He tells her that what they did was “shake the trees…that’s why you’re here.”
Graver and Alejandro take the prisoner, an associate of the cartel capo whom they’re after, into a back room. Alejandro brings a jug of water with him, and both he and Graver get the room to themselves to torture him. While Graver and Alejandro “work the dark side,” as Cheney put it, one of the Delta operators takes her on the roof of the facility. He gives her binoculars and tells her to look out into Juárez. In the distant streets, there are sirens, the tracers of high-caliber automatic gunfire, an explosion. Graver told her they were shaking the trees, and here’s proof.
They leave the base, and Reggie and Kate follow Graver and Alejandro to an ICE holding center in Arizona. Reggie, with his legal background, wants to know what’s going on and to what end. Kate, who has seen that the ugly methods produce results, is more ambivalent, more willing to trust her mysterious new partners. “We’re not even scratching the surface,” she tells Reggie, “they are.” For the second and third acts of the film, Reggie and Kate form a narrative pair, distinct from Graver and Alejandro. Reggie and Kate, with their FBI backgrounds, are strictly small-time. They liaise with the local police, and are probably accustomed to screening surveillance camera footage and wiretaps. On the other hand, there are Graver and Alejandro. Alejandro and Graver, the latter channeling The Dude by way of CIA warfare school The Farm, are obviously operating on another level. Their muscle isn’t Phoenix SWAT, but Tier-1 special forces operators. Their surveillance footage comes from Predator drones and orbiting satellites. With Reggie representing the world of traditional policing, and Graver/Alejandro representing a dark world of clandestine hybrid-warfare, Kate is caught in the middle. When Reggie continually tries to pull her back firmly into the civilian world, Kate pushes to keep a foot in the deep security state. At one point, she stresses that she needs the truth, first and foremost. The pursuit of truth, particularly a procedural element, is a hallmark of liberal war & security cinema.
However, since Kate remains stubbornly tethered to the civilian world, she fails to see how these special operations serve the big picture. After following orders saves her life at the border, Kate starts fucking up by following traditional protocols. Following a bust of one of the cartel’s money-launderers in a strip-mall parking lot, Kate ignores Graver’s orders to stay out of the bank where the deposit was made. Kate does so, getting a list of linked accounts so that the cartel’s assets can be frozen. As she goes in, she’s caught on the bank’s CCTV camera. Kate and Reggie speak to their superiors in hopes of following the money trail further, but instead they’re given a reality check. Their superior, played by Victor Garber, tells them that this financial information is useless for the ends that are being pursued. Furthermore, Kate and Reggie are derailing the investigation with their insistence on following traditional police protocols, like building a case based on evidence. That only catches the little guys, and they’re after big fish. Their supervisor asks them to consider their experience in the FBI, and to tell him whether traditional methods have accomplished anything. They concede that they haven’t. The supervisor tells them that they need to get with the program, because decisions are being made “by people who are elected, not appointed.” What Kate is involved with, what she can’t grasp or contend with, is that she’s operating on the level of statecraft.
Kate’s failure to follow Graver’s orders puts her life in danger. She and Reggie go to a country/western bar, where she’s chatted up by a hot cop named Ted, who Reggie tells her is a good guy. Dancing leads to making out, and Ted is back at Kate’s apartment. Kate identifies him as a cartel mole, but Ted overpowers her and starts strangling her. As Kate’s vision starts to blur, Alejandro comes out of the shadows and puts a gun to Ted’s forehead. As Kate washes herself off, and cries over her failure, Graver and Alejandro shake down Ted for more information, using the threat of cartel recriminations against his family as leverage. Once again, the deep state actors have known the score and saved the day. Reggie may have an impressive CV and a law school degree, but at the end of the day he’s just a cop. He could never ID a cartel mole, because he’s operating in an archaic paradigm with easily identifiable good guys and bad guys. In the “new normal,” it’s Alejandro and Graver, the shady wet-works operatives, who can find the insider threat, neutralize it, and turn it into actionable intelligence for future ops.
The final act centers around a raid on a cartel tunnel. Having forced the hand of the cartel head, Graver and Alejandro lead the Delta Force team to the desert. In the lead-up, Graver reveals what has been Kate’s role the entire time. Since the CIA charter prohibits domestic operations, Agency case officers have to be embedded with domestic units, like a novice FBI agent. At this point, Reggie tells Kate they need to bail on the operation, but she demands answers. They arrive at the tunnel, a sequence that’s marked by an oppressive score and almost-impressionistic imagery, signaling a sort of descent into hell, Kate’s reckoning with the heart of darkness. The operators switch to night-vision and infrared imagery, recalling the Abbottabad raid section from Zero Dark Thirty.
After a pitched battle, Alejandro comes out the other side and abducts a Mexican police officer serving as a drug-runner. Kate, going off-mission in her quest for the truth, stops Alejandro and (absurdly) tries to stop him. Alejandro puts two rounds in her Kevlar vest and warns her to never point a gun at him, driving off with his hostage. His hostage is a character the viewers have been introduced to several times before, showing his modest domestic life with his wife and son. Kate comes to and finds Graver, whom she punches in the face before she and Reggie are wrestled to the ground. Kate heard a reference to “Medellín,” which causes Graver to finally explain what’s going on. Alejandro, who had mentioned he was a prosecutor, is a Colombian cartel agent. The drug war in its current configuration is violent because it’s so unpredictable, with too many factions competing violently. What the US government is doing is restoring order, by allowing the Medellín cartels to once again dominate, thereby bringing much-needed stability. It’s not “peace,” but it’s the best Washington can do, unless Americans lose their insatiable taste for drugs. Sweaty, bleeding, and in the dirt, Kate now has the ugly truth.
At this point, Alejandro morphs into an elite ninja-style assassin. Looking less like the former lawyer he is and more like an unstoppable, avenging angel of death, Alejandro makes his way to the estate of the cartel head. In retaliation for the deaths of his family, who had been gruesomely slaughtered before his eye, Alejandro shoots the cartel head’s family at the dinner table before shooting the patriarch.
Kate is having a cigarette on her balcony. She finds Alejandro at her table, handgun in his gloved hands. He puts a sheet of paper in front of her, an affidavit swearing that everything was done by-the-books, and gives her the classic Vito Corleone ultimatum that either her signature or brains will be on it. Eventually, she relents, tearfully signing her name to the fraudulent document. He disassembles the pistol, telling her that she should “move to a small town, somewhere where the rule of law still exists. You will not survive here. You are not a wolf, this is the land of wolves now.”
The film ends with the family of Silvio, the police officer running drugs, now without a father. His wife and son are at a soccer game, when the sound of automatic gunfire commands everyone’s attention, and the screen goes black.