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.