Sicario: Mexican Drug Cartels & the US-led War on Drugs
Journalist and writer Ed Vulliamy was joined by Empire film critic Dan Jolin on Friday 5 February at the Frontline Club, to watch and discuss Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario.
The Academy Award-nominated film, the title of which translates to ‘assassin’, tells the story of the inextricably linked worlds of US law enforcement agencies and Mexican drug cartels.
Sicario follows FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), who leads an Arizona-based kidnap response unit. After she and her team lead a successful raid on a cartel hideout, Macer is recruited to work with an inter-agency special ops team led by CIA agent Matt Graver (Josh Brolin).
Alongside Graver’s partner Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro), Macer and the Delta Force team launch operations to capture the main narco-cartel players in the city of Juárez. She quickly learns how blurred the lines are in the USA’s inglorious war with Mexican cross-border drug cartels.
Jolin began by praising Sicario’s cinematography, describing it as a “slow-burning fuse, a mix of horror and sci-fi.” He said: “I’m a sucker for an effective score and beautiful cinematography – and that film has both.
“It posits this extreme reaction to dealing with the war on drugs. It takes you into a morally alien world. And the cinematography makes you feel like you’re in another world. When I came out I was thinking, ‘I don’t know what is wrong or right anymore’,” he said.
Vulliamy, who has worked extensively in South and Central America as a reporter for the Guardian, has visited Juárez frequently. One of the film’s opening sequences depicts decapitated corpses hanging from a bridge in the city – a scene which confronted Vulliamy during a recent trip.
But Vulliamy rejected the film’s depiction of the “darkness” of the city. “I’m actually one of the few people who still goes there for my holidays,” he said. “The more I spend time there the brighter its gets, and the decency of people grows more infectious and wonderful.”
Vulliamy said that that the war on drugs is “the first truly 21st century war.” He added: “It is our society that is irrevocably dependent on cocaine and it is our banks that keep accommodating the cartels by laundering their money. It is a totally post-modern, post-political war that is about nothing.”
Vulliamy praised Sicario for showing that the war on drugs in Mexico “is the future” and that in the murky war, “order is the best thing we can hope for.”
He said: “What you see in the film is the CIA putting people back into Mexico who are the only people who can run the system.
“The instruments of state need people like Chapo Gúzman [the recently recaptured cartel leader] on their side and that’s why they keep letting him out of jail, because he can keep the pax mafiosa.”
— Federica De Caria (@FedericaAntea) February 5, 2016
However, Vulliamy criticised the film for failing to depict the lives of real Mexicans. “I can’t understand why Hollywood can’t make a film about Mexico that is actually about Mexicans.
“Our sense of Juárez is nil. There’s no sense of poverty, and no real attempt to go there. It’s still Rambo.”
But Jolin defended Sicario’s focus, commenting that “the film is putting Americans at the heart of it and saying, ‘we can be just as bad as them’.”
Au audience member asked why the US government does not push for the legalisation of hard drugs.
Jolin said legalisation was the right path, but that politicians would never dare advocating it because it would lose them votes. Vulliamy suggested that “it would be great for Greenwich Village and on university campuses,” but that poverty-stricken areas of South America where the drugs are produced would not be improved.
“It’s not going to make anything worse. I just don’t think it’s the answer,” he said.