First-year M.A. student Jordan Parrish reviews Sicario (Denis Villeneuve 2015)

In order to construct an identity, whether as a society, nation, or a person, one must construct some form of boundary delineating the subject in question from other subjects. Denis Villeneuve takes these boundaries as the subject of his films since 2010, asking questions like, “How do we live after a past too terrible to speak of?”, “At what point does revenge become excessive, or does it naturally exist that way?”, and “Am I my own conscious agent, or does someone/something else pull my strings?” Never one to shy away from the less-desirable sides of human life, Villeneuve’s newest film Sicario (“hitman” in Spanish) crosses many literal boundaries (national borders, traditional gender roles) while also posing the question of ethical boundaries, the repercussions of crossing them and whether this activity still remains necessary to the formation of one’s identity. 

Sicario takes up the themes of U.S.-Mexican border struggles and international drug trade as explored in No Country for Old Men (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2007), another film which simultaneously interests itself in the dark side of humanity that continually rears its ugly head alongside these struggles. However, unlike No Country’s figuration of these fears into a single horrific antagonist against select “good guys”, Sicario features the majority of its main characters slipping in and out of this guise of inhuman violence. Additionally, in a national context, this constant fear of slippage brings up the question of whether or not this violent tradition remains necessary to render any change of identity: whether a subject can ever truly achieve this radical position.

This question leads to another key theme of the film also explored by the recent military intelligence film Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow, 2013): that of woman’s place among traditional masculine roles and what results from this change. Unlike Zero Dark Thirty, however, Sicario’s female protagonist works as a soldier at the immediate front lines of her raids, as opposed to the office-setting of war rooms. Just as Jessica Chastain’s character in the aforementioned film holds her ethics and ideals ahead of traditional considerations, Emily Blunt’s character in Sicario holds the same position in relation to her field, claiming the “whatever it takes” method to “get her man”, to eliminate her target. However, as she gets further enmeshed in her mission, her target becomes increasingly unclear, often becoming displaced onto those closest to her. One scene in which she tries to act like a “normal” human being, attending a local bar and hooking up with a friend of a friend, features that friend turning into a hitman working for her antagonist. 

The terrain of human intimacy in Sicario increasingly reflects the aura of its setting’s Mexican-American desert terrain on which Villeneuve takes increasing pains to photograph on screen. Does woman’s bold entrance onto this scene invoke any life inside this “no man’s land”? Can this gendered power struggle amount to anything other than an infinite war? Will this deadlock produce anything legitimate other than traditional outcomes among international relations?