By Shreehari H
“If you want to start a war, kidnap a prince. The king will start it for you.”
Thousands of people are smuggled across the United States-Mexico border for profit every year, a title card at the beginning of Sicario: Day of the Soldado informs us. Cocaine might have been the most valuable commodity that the cartels there bartered in twenty years ago, but this has gradually come to be replaced by an equally base trade in human flesh. Their nefariousness seems to have finally crossed a line as they are all set to be added to a list of terrorist organizations by the President himself, elaborated to us in a conversation between the establishment and Matt Graver, played by a superb Josh Brolin, the Special Activities Division officer of the Central Intelligence Agency.
“You can understand how this will expand our ability to combat them,” Graver is told, to which the grim-faced veteran replies, “You want to see this thing through? I’m going to have to get dirty.” The riposte, by way of a clarification, comes quick enough: “Dirty is exactly why you’re here.”
The word Soldado is about as Latin-American in origin as the setting of the story itself as it is used to connote a soldier who fights for a cause. In the film, this refers to a hitman, Alejandro Gillick -played by an inscrutable, nonchalant Benicio del Toro in a knockout performance-who wears insouciance like a coat of armour. He’s a man who looks incomplete in the absence of a firearm, one who’s simultaneously both the kidnapper and the benefactor.
The abductee here is Isabela Reyes, played, interestingly, by a charming teenager called Isabela Moner, who is also the daughter of a much-reviled cartel kingpin. She plays the character of a firecracker girl, who dares her own principal to expel her after having just come to blows with a schoolmate for mentioning her and narcotics in the same breath. The scene in which she finally comes to terms with her new state of affairs absolutely stands out.
The battle that ensues is as much with the Mexican police as it is with the cartels and predictably results in a ruckus of the highest order as shadows of helicopters dance across the harsh, unforgiving climes of a Mexican desert, corpses lie dangling from the back of a van in a spine-chilling turn of events.
Much of the genius of the film lies in the powerful, propulsive script by Taylor Sheridan, of Hell and High Water fame, and in its cinematography. The film flits from one location to another: from the Gulf of Somalia to Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, from McAllen in Texas to the towering skyscrapers of Mexico City, and aerial shots are used to great effect as well. The film’s sombre tone is further enhanced by a creeping background score, and even something as banal as the barking of a dog creates a palpable sense of urgency that is hard to shake off.
Sicario: Day of the Soldado makes a point about how in the midst of all the political wrangling and outmanoeuvring that have become a staple of cross-border cartelization, innocent lives are being taken. The film refuses to paint any of its actors as archetypal heroes or villains, and moral ambiguity remains a recurring thread. A major character is so traumatized, both physically and mentally, towards the end that she remains blank-eyed – utterly incapable of even batting an eyelid – and her gut-wrenching, creepy stare into nothingness is the single most defining moment of this film. It all feels horrifyingly relatable, and we instantly empathize both with her and the co-inhabitants of this dark, murky world, one that is as untraversable, as inhospitable as the Pico de Orizaba itself.
All they can do is soldier on.
Rating: 4 out of 5
Shreehari H is a lover of films and an even greater lover of writing.
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