I’ve heard it said that there’s no such thing as an anti-war movie. The logic goes that no matter how gory, shocking, or senseless a war may appear on the screen, it’s still only appearing on the screen. It’s still brought to us with the choreography, camerawork, and effects of cinema magic, and it’s done for the purpose of keeping a captive audience excited. Which means that no matter who made the movie or how anti-war their intentions were, there’s always going to be a patina of Hollywood sheen on the end result. A patina that is most certainly not in any real war.

Take, for example, David Ayer’s recent WWII drama, Fury. Most critics (myself included, I admit) were blown away by Ayer’s attempts at putting the audience in the middle of a tank battle, to show the sound and fury and trauma of being there in a WWII battlefield. But whose name was there above the title? Brad freaking Pitt. With every hair on his head perfectly slicked back. No matter how much mud they put on him and no matter what his character said or did, there was never any doubt that we were watching one of the most attractive men in show business. In a movie about the ugliness of war.

I was very forcefully reminded of this while watching Sicario, a film about Juarez, the so-called “murder capital of the world”. Debut screenwriter Taylor Sheridan and director Denis Villeneuve (who examined a similar conflict of “bad vs. evil” in law enforcement by way of Prisoners) paint a picture of a drug cartel infestation that’s become so depraved, so violent, and so hopelessly out of control that American law enforcement has either had to bend the rules or outright break them in stopping the cartels’ various crimes. In other words, this means that we’ve got elite gunmen armed to the teeth, operating with only the flimsiest facade of oversight or jurisdiction, to stop criminals from murdering people, selling drugs, kidnapping people, blowing stuff up, bribing officials, and God knows what else.

It’s a grotesque, awful conflict in which chaos is the goal of both sides and every victory only results in starting the cycle of butchery anew. And yet our main characters are played by Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, and Benicio Del Toro.

No joke, there’s one point roughly an hour in when someone remarks that Blunt’s character looks like shit. And I just sat there going “No, she looks like Emily Blunt!” Then of course we have Brolin, playing a smartass psychopath who seems to revel in chaos and destruction, but Brolin is so talented at playing the charming scoundrel that it’s impossible not to like him just a little bit. As for Del Toro, he plays a stone-cold killer who mows people down without a second thought. But of course he’s given a tragic backstory, because God forbid this pivotal main character should be completely unsympathetic.

In case it seems like I’m being overly sensitive, it’s worth remembering that the situation in Juarez is no fiction, and it’s not something that happened half a century ago. Though violence in Juarez has more or less declined in recent months, the city is still home to two major drug cartels and over 400 street gangs. Police corruption is still rampant, the drug trade is still alive and well, and hundreds of people are still dying there every year.

[UPDATE: At the behest of a friend who was actually born in Juarez, I rechecked my sources and found them to be somewhat less than reliable. I understand that violence in Juarez went down significantly after the end of the turf war between the Juarez and Sinaloa cartels, and there’s been a lot of renewed effort into cracking down on police corruption. However, my friend has assured me that the situation in Juarez is far too complicated to be adequately summed up with a handful of statistics, never mind a couple of paragraphs in a film review. And my point stands that this is a very recent tragedy that affected untold hundreds of lives as recently as just a few years ago.]

Then again, this movie is a work of fiction. And one of the most crucial reasons why we have fiction is to examine difficult concepts and questions in a safe and creative way. So if this movie gets people talking about Juarez and spreads awareness about how crappy things are down there, then I applaud it for that much. And anyway, if the ugliness of the film doesn’t quite match with the ugliness of the reality, then as I said before, that’s a problem shared by all of Hollywood cinema through no fault of the filmmakers here.

Because brother, by mainstream Hollywood standards, these filmmakers did not hold back.

Right off the bat, this movie treats us to a maelstrom of carnage and chaos. Everything builds on what came before, from the opening bang to the bloody shootout to the dead bodies that were mutilated in unspeakable ways, and then there’s the “wow finish”. I don’t dare go into any more detail than that, because it would take away from the pure shock of discovering everything as the characters do.

The whole picture has an overly melodramatic sense of self-importance, but after that opening scene? Movie earned it. Once the first few minutes have set that bar, we know that anything can happen to anyone at any time. We never know who’s going to kill whom, or whether the corpse will be dismembered and hung from a bridge to set an example. Yes, we do see that happen first-hand.

It also helps that just about everyone in the cast is a hardened killer with their own agenda. Even Blunt’s character, who’s supposed to be our protagonist and moral compass, is established as a badass FBI agent who’s killed her share of armed thugs and seen her share of nightmare fuel on the job. And it’s anyone’s guess whether she’ll stick with protocol, let the ends justify the means, or go off the reservation entirely, and what could happen afterwards as a result.

To be clear, it’s not like the film is entirely void of comic relief. We get the odd bit of witty repartee, usually between Blunt and Brolin. There’s also a scene in which Blunt goes out drinking with her FBI partner (Reggie, played by Daniel Kaluuya). It’s a nice little moment that helps to develop both characters. But then Jon Bernthal shows up, and… well, Jon Bernthal shows up. That right there should be all you need to know.

Which brings me to something else about this film’s lighter moments: Even those are overshadowed by a thick sense of impending doom. A prime example concerns Maximiliano Hernandez, who gets an entire storyline to show his happy family life. It’s not even remotely connected to the main story at first. That whole subplot was put in the movie just to make it that much more tense and potentially tragic when the character inevitably collides with our main cast.

Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Joe Walker, whose fantastic work in the cutting room must have been a crucial part of why the action and suspense are so damned effective. It also helps that Roger Deakins was behind the camera, and the sterling camerawork is up to his usual impeccable quality.

I want to be absolutely clear in stating that Sicario is a good movie. In fact, it’s a really good movie. All of the actors are giving it their best, the suspense is palpable from start to finish, and the action is suitably gut-wrenching. I applaud the filmmakers for bringing attention to Juarez by stating in plain and unflinching terms that it is a terrible clusterfuck. And if the plot is opaque until the last third or so, then it’s done in such a way that it leads us to question how wise it would be to leave this in the hands of cowboys who operate without the least bit of transparency. Alas, the gritty realism is slightly flawed by what I can only assume were a few studio notes, all of which were handled by the filmmakers as best as could be expected. But it’s still tough to unsee that patina of Hollywood sheen once you first notice it.

Anyway, it’s a well-crafted movie that very nicely counterbalances the comedy and optimism of The Martian. If you’re in the mood for some angry political discourse by way of limbs getting blown off, definitely give it a look.

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