Sicario Analysis: A Land of Wolves

Photo credits: Roger Deakins, Director of Photography

A question as old as time with an ever changing answer. What defines good and evil? According to Denis Villeneuve’s 2015 film Sicario the answer is: nothing.

Hi, and welcome to Sculpting in Frames, a blog which breaks down and analyses the themes and meanings of modern films. Spoilers ahead, by the way.

Today, we will be looking at Sicario, a 2015 crime-thriller set at the heart of the Mexican Drug War, exploring the political, moral and criminal questions surrounding the decades long conflict. Emily Blunt plays FBI Agent Kate Mercer, an idealist who becomes way over her head when she enlists in an operation directed at the heart of the Cartels. Sicario is a well paced, nerve-racking movie in its own right, but it also dives into some deeper questions beyond your average summer blockbuster.

So what does Sicario ask us? Well, put simply, Sicario asks us if the ends justify the means. The film makes a point of showing us a male dominated FBI and CIA, one that Mercer had to work hard to rise through, these agencies are set on an escalation of the drug war. A black-ops raid over the border to eliminate the leadership of a Cartel.

Emily Blunt as Agent Kate Mercer

By crossing legal lines, Sicario raises the point that the law can only do so much: in the scene where Mercer is briefed she is told that this is the only way to get the people responsible for the atrocities seen in the opening. Highlighting the impotency of the US Government and its inability to properly deal with the drug war is the first hint we get as to Sicario’s dilemma: should good people sometimes break the law?

In the very first scene, Mercer states that the house filled with bodies is owned by the Cartel, although there is no legal way to prove it. This strict adherence to due process frustrates Mercer deeply, yet she ultimately agrees with the rule of law for the first two acts of the film.

Through her relationship with Benicio Del Toro’s character of Alejandro, a mysterious operative she meets on her first mission with the CIA, Mercer is forced to confront her views on morality. Alejandro says as much in the briefing scene: “You will doubt everything you do but in the end you will understand.”

Benicio Del Toro’ character of Alejandro serves as a catalyst to Sicario’s moral and ethical questions.

The implication of the torture of Guillermo in the 2nd act reveals that going outside the law, while deeply unethical, can yield results. In addition, the illegal presence of US law enforcement on Mexican soil does in the end prove successful. The task-force accomplishes their goal of shutting down one of the Cartels, dismantling their supply systems and killing or arresting their leadership.

However, Mercer protests consistently throughout the film at the illegal activities of the task force, conflicted with doubts about her own morals and the values she was brought up to respect: justice, due process and the rule of law.

Alejandro, and to a lesser extent Josh Brolin’s character of Graver, undermine Mercer’s ideals throughout the film with their jaded and cynical view of morality, ethics and violence. She begins to question whether such checks and balances help or harm authority in our modern world, where the lines of good and evil are so rarely obvious.

Alejandro’s character uses revenge as his justification against the cartel, while Graver states that only a mission that crosses legal and ethical lines can sort out the cartels. For both individuals, the ends always justify the means.

And yet, at the film’s closing we are left to wonder if they really do.

Alejandro is still not at peace and still works to hunt down the cartels. The end result of his arc leaves him more entrenched in his beliefs, yet he has nothing to show for it. At the final confrontation with Fausto, after a movie’s worth of buildup, we see that the man behind the Cartel is just that — an ordinary man.

Meanwhile, Graver celebrates a victory, one battle of a lost war. The drug cartels keep going, Fausto and his men are replaced, and the cycle of violence continues. The film’s dark closing scene at the football field implies that nothing has changed.

Ultimately, the question is left for the viewer to decide. Mercer, ashamed and depressed by her actions, signs away her morals and testifies that the investigation was done legally. As the film closes we see, just as Alejandro told her: “You will understand in the end.”

By the time Sicario ends, and the viewer is left to wonder what lines are truly worth crossing, I am reminded of one of the final lines given by Alejandro.

“You will not survive here. You are not a wolf, and this is a land of wolves now.”