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Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro get ‘Sicario’ in Mexico

Thanks Don Winslow. (Said with the cadence of ‘Thanks Obama.’) You ruined the drug-war action drama Sicario for me.

Winslow’s fantastic, methodically researched novel The Cartel is an unsentimental education in six hundred pages. James Ellroy nailed it when he called the novel “The War and Peace of dopewar books.”

Even before Mexican kingpin El Chapo escaped jail last July and the Mexican government scapegoated four policemen, Winslow altered the way I viewed the so-called war on drugs. To paraphrase “I’ve looked at drugs from both sides now,” and by using multiple narratives Winslow makes the case that the cartels aren’t something run by Mexican families south of Laredo, but an intricate web of government complicity on both sides of the border where our guys often support (with guns and dollars) what they consider to be the least of all evil drug lords in a policy that, like the War in Vietnam, has become a lose-lose proposition.

Winslow,  by writing a book with multiple narratives, gives humanity to citizens north and south and renders evil in the devils of two nations. His book lays out the issue from the embattled journalists in their native Juarez to a drug lord’s mistress to a child soldier born in the slums of the U.S. and trained to become a sicario (an assassin)of soul-evaporating brutality. You also make us question the “good guys” of Mexican and American law enforcement and their respective governments. Don, you created a rich and complex narrative. It’s a tale of one border with two very different sides that are as interrelated as brothers, codependent and estranged.

Which returns me to Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario: I was perhaps too steeped in the complex contemporary tragedy to swallow the slick styling of actor-turned-screenwriter Taylor Sheridan whole. I wanted Traffic, I got Two-Lane Blacktop.

The lithe, lovely Emily Blunt stars as Kate, a naive, or as Hollywood says, “idealistic” FBI agent. After an electrifying opening set piece in an Arizona subdivision, a dodgy government task force recruits her to fight the war on drugs covertly — in Mexico. By the book Kate all too suddenly confronts the American legal heart of darkness.

I kept wondering why the plucky agent hadn’t read Winslow’s previous books — or even the newspaper? Or, at least, given the grotesquely violent sequences she enters with her Kevlar vest, why she had so little clue about the invasive tentacled tumor that the cartels have become on both sides of the border crossings that they control to Midas-size profits. The more I wondered, the less I believed in her as a character — and the devastating violence that fuels the film became like a crack cocaine distraction from the narrative nonsense.

For those who read my film criticism, you’ll know that I’m all about the female-driven narrative. And, in some ways, this is Blunt’s story. However, her narrative arc is as limited as the convex curve of a contact lens. Blunt’s bewildered and lip-glossed agent is a false construct. To root for her, and her desire to fight crime by the books, is to sit on the side of American willful ignorance. And that’s not my preferred seat. I want to see and understand the border conflict through Winslow’s kaleidoscope, not Hollywood’s narrow gaze. In Spanish and English.

I confess that what I love about Sicario are the visceral set pieces — and I think that is what will appeal to audiences, too. But when G-worman Blunt crosses the border in a plane with a mysterious federal agent (a charmingly no-bullshit Josh Brolin) and a twitchy overdressed Latino on special assignment from no branch of the U.S. government that has a payroll (Benicio Del Toro), I missed the complexity of The Cartel. Because his Juarez, not the Mexican drug jungle of the movie, had a culture of books and journalists and community. It was a real place raped and dismembered by the drug trade, a collusion of greed and violence and the American dream for escape through white powder.

The Juarez of Sicario is all backdrop for an American vision. Additionally, thanks to The Cartel, I know that the duality the movie sets up between the good federales and the corrupt local police is horseshit. In fact, the federal police are just playing on a different team, because there isn’t just one drug kingpin but many.

Sicario will shock and, perhaps, amaze. Brolin and Del Toro give it grit. Blunt (as always) gives her best but, like Jessica Rabbit, her problem is that she was just drawn that way and can’t escape the sketch. Not only does Sicario come in the wake of The Cartel, and not everybody is reading 600-page books however brilliant these days, but it also follows Netflix’s Narcos. I inhaled that serial character study of Colombian drug king Pablo Escobar in great snorts until the final downward spiral.

If you want to read a fantastic female-driven narrative of a legendary female drug chieftain, reach for the riveting Queen of the South by Arturo Perez-Reverte. Telemundo adapted that novel in Spanish in the wildly popular telenovela La Reina Del Sur. There was also that the sultry but intensely lonely survivalist drug queen played by Salma Hayek in Oliver Stone’s adaptation of Winslow’s previous novel Savages.

So that is my long answer as to why, while Sicario will impact some audiences (and the lovely man sitting next to me at the Toronto International Film Festival screening), it lacks authenticity. While it has the stinking dismembered bodies to give it street cred, it goes down like warm milk compared to the reality: a world where we Americans, in general, are willfully misunderstanding our co-dependent relationship with our sister to the south. As someone who grew up on the border in San Diego, and has fond memories of family visits to Tijuana and Ensenada, where life seemed so much more vibrant than the suburbs where I lived, this is a narrative I find infinitely affecting.

Like Vietnam, the War on Drugs is unwinnable — but we have to understand what its true nature is. Sicario is a fiction, yes, but a misleading modern Western with Americans wearing dirty white hats, Mexicans in sombreros. It seems daring but when the dust settles it’s a bit of same old myth-making, as old as Tom Mix.

Read the headlines — and learn to read between the headlines. Follow @DonWinslow. Drug kingpin El Chapo escapes his high security prison. The Mexican government arrests policemen fall guys. What is a badge when it can be bought? This is a dance and the drug cartels are paying the band with briefcases of cash dollars (not pesos). Consider the refrain of Narcos: do you want silver or do you want lead — bribes or death. And consider this: it is a choice to be naive, Kate, not a tragedy.

<strong>Thelma Adams, </strong>

<strong>Editor, Film</strong>

<strong> September 17, 2015</strong>


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