By Kerwin Holmes, Jr.
A strong tower may be built in a day, but in its foundation lies the testing of its strength.
SPOILER alert, be warned.
The film Sicario is definitely one of the most notable films that I have seen this year. Sicario takes its name from history, connecting ancient terror situations with modern ones. The Ancient Romans, the strongest Mediterranean power in history, used the plural term sicarii (the singular form being sicarius/sicario) in referring to the Jewish zealots who fought to resist Roman control over Judea, the ancient homeland of the Jews that is currently part of modern-day Israel. The Jewish zealots functioned like ancient terrorists and were known to rob passersby at hazardous road crossings and mountainous passes…usually using daggers (called sica in Latin) as their trademark weapon. They would attack Roman garrisons or citizens foolish enough to travel without sufficient protection; and they were one of four major groups of religious Jews described by the Jewish historian Josephus that were vying for the loyalty of the Jewish people (the others being the Pharisees, Sadducees, and the Essenes).
But Sicario has nothing to do with first century Jews resisting Roman occupiers. It has a much more contemporary story: the drug smuggling war the United States’ and Mexican governments currently fight in North America and beyond. The film centers on Agent Kate Macer of the FBI as she and her partner Agent Reggie Wayne lead an assault team that uncovers a cartel house with the bodies of over 40 murdered victims entombed within its walls. Agent Macer is thereafter selected to partake in a “special” task force to operate in the area Juarez, Mexico on both sides of the border. Her orders are to use her expertise in order to help the group strike at the heart of the drug cartel behind the gruesome house and the IED planted at the property that killed two of the agents under her command and maimed several.
But, what is not known to Macer is that she was chosen over her partner Agent Wayne particularly because she lacks the military experience that Wayne possesses, and also for her reputation of trusting in the legal system and “doing things by the book.” The task force Macer joins includes an enigmatic CIA agent named Matt Graver and an even more enigmatic and particularly gruesome “asset” of Latin American origin who is referred to as “Alejandro” by the Americans and as “Medellín” by the Mexican locals and cartel members. Secrecy is the name of the game: Macer’s first day out with the task force enlightens her that she has really joined a militarized op and not the “by the book” strike force the FBI told her about. Add to this that she is operating with a collection of Army Special Forces operators, U.S. Marshals, a CIA agent, and a mysterious hitman (Alejandro) who all seem to know more than she does, and you get a very touchy “testosterone” situation. Macer spends the entire film in a constant tension between panic and distrust as her onslaught of questions eventually works up her nerve to rebel against her orders and to finally act on her impulse…albeit by that time she has long lost her nerve to really do anything.
The film hits audiences with some brutal ethical and political dilemmas. Images of murdered civilians dangling by rope from an overhead bridge are shown as Macer and the task force take to the streets of Juarez for the first time. During an interrogation that Alejandro performs on a captured high-ranking cartel member, it is implied that Alejandro rapes the man while Matt Graver idly watches. The cameras are turned off, and nothing is shown except that the water jug that Alejandro brought in to waterboard the suspect remained completely full and untouched beside the drain in the floor. The deed is seemingly confirmed later on after Macer and Wayne question the methods Alejandro and Graver use to get information from locals. Wayne can be heard asking Macer in a quick whisper whether Alejandro f—d the cartel member, as if the gossip had already begun to spread.
Sicario reveals to us a gruesome picture of a world gone disastrously wrong in the world of law enforcement. The vulnerability of the characters to the violence around them and their corruptibility to the social vices that have allowed the situation of the drug war to go unchecked combine to jar viewers of the film, confronted with humanity in its essential brokenness. Let’s not be prone to forget that we all have imperfections and weaknesses that have caused us to see some of our worst days of life. We all are prone to certain kinds of vices, and we all have the ability to become the monster or the villain, and if not those then something in between.
With ourselves as our societies’ foundations, it’s no wonder that all of our towers eventually fall.
And yet we potentially have heroic moments as the villain. It is revealed that Alejandro was a member of a rival Colombian cartel but that the Mexican cartel they are hunting beheaded his wife and threw his daughter into a vat of acid. It is eventually Alejandro who puts the cartel leader to death–along with his wife and two sons. Such an action can be seen in mixed light. Alejandro exacted just retribution for what the cartel had done to his family and countless others, yet he himself broke several ethical and legal boundaries in order to get to that point. Add to that the fact that if Alejandro had not been involved in the Colombian cartel then his family would have been spared, and you have a messy climax for what viewers may earnestly desire to turn out as a clean solution. Macer tries to exact her own brand of by-the-book justice throughout the events, but she usually impedes the progress that the task force is making, and her rigidity eventually puts her at odds with the FBI. In one crucial scene where Macer and Wayne go to their FBI officer to report Alejandro and Graver’s rule-breaking, they are both informed that they all have been given the green light from the highest channels of authority to cross any ethical boundary that may impede their progress. But that does not satisfy Macer, whose by-the-book attitude nearly gets her killed at the end of the hunt and jeopardizes the entire mission.
If you are reading this and have a mixed sense of respect and disgust at the details, then you have discovered the point of the movie. While it may bring satisfaction knowing that the cartel leader who caused the deaths of so many families and civilians watched his own family be killed before his execution…it also brings to our hearts utter resentment for their killer who arguably is just as guilty.
Should such unethical violence be used to combat such a brutal enemy? And where does the final dividing line between savior and sadist stop? Even more, when will all of this warfare and slaughtering finally end?
The final scene closes in on the football game of a young boy who lost his father in the violence. (His father was a crooked cop employed by the Mexican cartel who had a fateful encounter with Alejandro near the close of the action.) His mother and other parents look on as their children kick the soccer ball across the field. Suddenly gunfire erupts in a distant area not too far away and not too close that grabs everyone’s attention. But it is a clear and sunny day, a perfect day for soccer, and such sounds have long become customary, so the game continues after a few seconds as if nothing was ever heard.
How long until we too become used to the sound of warfare as we have become used to the sounds of automobiles on the highway? For some of us, the sound is so distant that it’s as if it never happens. For others of us, the sounds are too close and too real for any real comfort to ever be enjoyed.
We are fallen creatures in a fallen world, and we are powerless to save ourselves from ourselves. But there is real hope.
Christians take comfort in knowing that a Savior invaded humanity to right all wrongs and to establish true justice in the world. Our Savior, God the Son, came to us as a human being in Roman-occupied Judea. In fact, Jesus grew up in the city of Nazareth in the region of Galilee…which happens to be the main region where the Jewish sicarii operated. Jesus, much like the people of Juarez in the movie Sicario, was from a city of such deplorable reputation that it was even doubted whether anything remotely worthwhile could ever come from there. God came among us in the very depths of our depravity, and lived in our depravity firsthand in order to redeem us totally while we are at our worst (Hebrews 2:17). The same ancient terror that inspired the naming of the movie Sicario, a film that gave this violence a type of modern portrayal, was the real life experience of the Messiah growing up in Nazareth with his immediate family. Let’s not forget that our Lord grew up being viewed as a bastard by some and a loon by others because of His background. This should encourage us even as we fear the social stigma that our life experiences cause us in our lives.
Whatever problems that we face, no matter how dire and grave that our personal security becomes, Jesus offers us the power needed to confront the evil within ourselves and in our environment. We truly survive our circumstances solely by dwelling in the triumph that only God can bring–indeed in what He has already purchased for us with His blood.
Some will ask, “But will God accept me?” There are those among us who are much like Alejandro; we have received much of the trouble in our lives from what we ourselves have done. Our pain is not the result of victimization; a lot of our pain stems from the pain and death that we have inflicted upon others, and even our moments of heroism are stained by our vices. By looking to Jesus, those of us like Alejandro realize that Messiah’s love and grace extends and reaches for us too. Jesus, the man who forever suffered the reputation of His hometown Nazareth, chose one of the zealots responsible for the pain and turmoil of his people for one of His closest disciples (Luke 6:12-16 and Acts 1:13).
Christ even forgave a man while he was being put to death for his crimes. It is the intrusion of God’s love in our real life that works in us and inspires us to live for Him.
Sicario is a fictional film that has real life totally interwoven within its plot. Thankfully, the answers to real life are found in the Advocate who knows exactly what each one of us lives through in the everyday.
I pray that you begin to see Him. And I hope you come to know that He sees you.