Right and Wrong: Law and Morality in “Sicario”

“Sicario” is a 2015 movie directed by Denis Villeneuve, starring Emily Blunt, Benicio del Toro and Josh Brolin. The movie has participated in the 2015 Cannes Film Festival and it has received three Academy Award nominations for Best Cinematography, Best Original Score, Best Sound Editing and three BAFTA nominations for Best Supporting Actor, Best Cinematography, and Best Film Music. It is not only technically brilliant but it brings up two very important themes: morality and justice.

At first sight, “Sicario” is a tense action-thriller movie. It starts with a dynamic scene, featuring a SWAT unit assault to the house of a well-known drug-dealer. The raid soon reveals itself much more important than it seemed. The discovery of an impressive number of corpses walled inside the building and the explosion of a bomb trap bring the attention of the authorities to the case. FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), who took part in the operation, is asked to cooperate in an interdepartmental task force with a mysterious officer, Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), who doesn’t introduce himself, but, as we will know later, is a member of the CIA. She accepts, thus she begins further investigation but she will soon start to doubt her certainties about who is good and who is evil.

We are used to a clear difference between right and wrong, especially when referring to laws. Kate perfectly represents this view: she is a righteous police officer, she respects the protocol, she has a deeply-felt sense of good and evil. In the movie, as the video “Sicario: The Mirage of a Moral Word” by Digging Deeper points out, this ideal is represented by the colour blue. In the first scenes, Kate wears the dark blue uniform of the FBI and after a blue t-shirt. The waiting room of the department office is blue, the police cars are blue, etc. Visually, this clear-cut point of view is shown through the use of light. In the very first shot, Kate is in a police van and the dark of the vehicle’s inside is lighted by sun rays. Also, the SWAT raid and the Juarez sequence are shot in daylight.

However, Kate is soon faced with a much different perspective: the right and wrong boundary is flexible, fluid, it changes constantly. This is suggested especially by the shots of the desert. Not only the desert is the place where it is very hard to orient, but it has also a beige colour, that is not defined, not clear, exactly as the “justice” of Matt and Alejandro (Benicio del Toro), his assistant. Most of all, the desert is arid, it has an extremely dry climate, it drains life out of any being, as this view of morality takes away all the humanity of a person. This is evident for Alejandro: he lost is family, his ideals, his life and now he is only thirsty for revenge. In fact, beige is the predominant colour in most of the movie, but when either Matt or Alejandro are on the scene it becomes even more present.

Another concept communicated by the desert is that there is, in fact, no distinction between good and evil. This is emphasised by the view of the USA-Mexico border. It is just a line in the desert, there is really no physical difference between the two sides, but, at the same time, there is all the difference possible: order on one side, crime, and violence on the other.

The two perspectives are metaphorically connected to the use of surfaces all the movie long. In the first part, opaque surfaces prevail: the walls of the drug dealers’ house, the USA-Mexico border, the walls of the interrogatory room, etc. The wall divides definitively right and wrong, it defines two sides in opposition. Evil hides behind walls and shelters: the corpses walled inside the house, the bomb hidden beneath a wooden panel. In the second part, transparent surfaces become more common: the glass walls of the department of justice, car windows, curtains, etc. The distinction is not so easy, glass is treacherous. Evil doesn’t hide, it sneaks through good and it poisons it.

Credits: tribecafilm

As the storyline progresses, Kate is forced to lose her opinion, she is faced with a hard truth. She has to recognise that if the law enforcement wants to be effective, it has to go beyond its legal boundaries. However, this makes the enforcement equal to the crime it is supposed to fight. Alejandro’s operation was not the execution of a sentence but a pure revenge. Kate knows it, but she signs the document, assuring that the protocol has been followed, even if everybody who took part in the operation knows that it is surely not like that.

In fact, the idea suggested by the movie is very negative: it is not possible to guarantee justice, but only to maintain a relative state of order. And to maintain this order, law enforcement must be free of any legal constraint, thus becoming almost undistinguishable from the same criminality it has to fight. The point is: is it truly like that? The movie suggests that it is a general situation but at the same time refers to a very specific geographic and cultural situation. The problems of the USA-Mexico border are well-known and Juarez is one of the most dangerous cities in the world. However, many other realities could recall some of these aspects, such as the presence of organized crime, high homicide rates, corruption in police forces and inability to enforce the law.

Then, is it worth to enforce the law in such a way that does not respect the law? First, it is not coherent, it is a distortion of the judicial system. Second, it makes the police officers no different from the drug-dealers, it dehumanizes them in the exact same way, as shown repeatedly in the movie. Third, it breaks international conventions and it does not recognize human rights. “Sicario” doesn’t show this aspect, but what about the institutional relationships between the two countries? Fourth, but it should be first in order of importance, is it effective? The last scene of the movie is central to answer this question. The kids’ soccer match is interrupted by a gunshot, the violence does not end.

Complex problems do not have simple solutions. But, for sure, it is impossible to share Matt’s view of the future. The movie provokes the audience to react to this story of violence and to think about better ways to address the problem. It has a strong emotional impact that can be turned into reflection. This is maybe its greatest strength: “Sicario” doesn’t end when the screen goes black after the titles, but it is recalled by all the news about organised crime, corruption, and law enforcement and it gives an input of doubt to our certainties.

by Amedeo Zorzi

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