A meditation on “Sicario” (2015)


“The history of civilization is nothing more or less than the development of order.” -August Comte

“Order out of chaos.” -Old secret society motto

“Better an injustice than disorder.” -Goethe

“All good things on this earth flow into the city.” -Pericles of Athens

“He who’s not busy being born is busy dying.” -Bob Dylan

Like most of the films featured on this blog, Denis Villeneuve’s “Sicario” is about America. More specifically, it concerns the efforts of a waggish, wily government spook, played by Josh Brolin, to sew a little chaos, and weave a bit of order, along America’s southern border in the no-man’s land of Juarez, Mexico. He is joined by a soft-spoken mercenary, played by Benicio Del Toro, who undertakes this mission for his own opaque reasons. Central is the agonizing internal struggle of a young FBI attache, played by Emily Blunt, over whether their methods-and ultimately their motives-are sound.

The cinematography mimicks the gaze of a shellshocked bystander: tunnel vision sweeping sluggishly from detail to detail- someone’s shoes, a gun, the face of a sleeping man, the desert wastes scrolling past a jet window. The soundtrack is unsettlingly sparse: only atmospheric bass that is easily mistaken for the beating of your own heart. Both convey volumes by gesture and implication, leaving much space and time for the viewer to ponder the gravity of what he is witnessing. The descent into Juarez is reminiscent of Brueghel’s paintings of the Black Death.

* * *

Over the course of a few hundred years, tiny, militaristic, republican Rome came to dominate the Mediterranean, enveloping territories, resources, and peoples, bringing them under a single world-order. Where there had once been only endless, village-by-village butchery and the caprice of the local chief, now in every city was a Roman tax collector, a Roman court, a Roman bathhouse, and a Roman theater. The city personified its will, and its dizzying bureaucratic edifice, in a single man, the Caesar. Its offer was an ultimatum: Bow to Caesar, prosper in peace. Reject Caesar, and die by his metal.

But seemingly just as soon as Rome had actualized its wildest goal, conquering the farthest reaches of the known world, the tide reversed, and this youthful command would be whittled down, over the course of the next millennium, to the bargain of an aging manager: “I’ll pay your tribe to guard the border along the Danube,” and finally to the pathetic plea of a senile puppet: “Here’s one-and-a-half tons of gold, if you promise not to sack the capital again.” The Eastern Empire continued in this sad state for centuries before it was finally put out of its misery by the Muslim Turks in 1453. Citizenship, once restricted to the inhabitants of Rome, became a reward for military service, then a tool of assimilation, then a bargaining chip, then nothing at all. Rome’s effort to embrace the infinite, to throw its arms madly around all of existence, ended when it was engulfed.

To love something is to want to dominate it, to merge with it- and, finally, to surrender to it. Just as Rome once had, America fell in love with the world. It dominated the world. It is in the process of merging with the world. (There is much work still to be done on this front.) Sicario’s depiction of the drug cartel affords a glimpse of the new world America might some day surrender to, a world it formed in its own image, a world increasingly out of its control.

Some might call America’s project good, others will call it evil. They will attribute America’s actions to greed, or power lust, or idealism, or chauvinism, or madness. The same things can all be said of one person’s love for another person, the causes of which are inevitably obscure, even to the lover himself. Good or evil, love is about power. And the loved will always hold more power than the one who loves. And the master will always end up as the slave.