‘Sicario’—Making America Great Again—Villeneuve’s Beige Border Chronicle of an Unwinnable War Foretold


April 11, 2024


By Graham S. Clarke and Ross Clarke


The combination of Villeneuve’s direction, Sheridan’s script, Deakins’ images, Jóhannsson’s score. A heady alchemy that creates arguably the best big screen American moral thrillers since ‘The Parallax View,’ ‘The French Connection’ and ‘The Conversation.’ A dangerous land of wolves on the border.


It is worth noting that Denis Villeneuve’s film before Sicario was Prisoners—a film that glances back at the ghosts of American torture abroad, relocated to a domestic and religious setting. For Villeneuve, in Prisoners, the post-9/11 world of war is coming home to roost. Mass slaughter, war and drone strikes abroad—these were policies instigated by a Republican President Bush and re-enforced with a different, arguably more brutal ‘eye in the sky’ angle by President Obama. Trump took a very different insular view of American Foreign policy, for him America needed to focus its power and military might on its immediate surroundings. Making America Great Again was a largely domestic affair that involved building a wall for the immigrant enemy at the gates. Sicario then is a film that looks back to that future.

Sicario was released in 2015—pre-populism, it was also a very different place economically and structurally for filmmakers. A mini studio (in this case Lionsgate) could still make an intelligent genre film and hope to turn a profit (Sicario was a $30 million budget). And Netflix was only available in the Americas and Europe (it expanded to its current 192 countries through 2016) and stood at less than half its current subscription base—HBO Max, Disney+ and other streamers didn’t even exist and larger indies like Lionsgate were still thriving. It was indeed normal and fiscally sound to make Sicario for theatrical release and without the backing of a streamer—almost unthinkable today.

For Villeneuve, off the back of the critically lauded Incendies and the commercially successful Prisoners (and his brilliant A24 “doubles” movie Enemy), Sicario signaled his arrival at that rare table—the thinking man’s commercial auteur. With the success of Sicario, Villeneuve hit his stride and from Prisoners through to the Dune adaptation made five big movies in seven years, working with the biggest stars of the day—from Ryan Gosling, Emily Blunt and Timothy Chalamet to Jake Gyllenhaal, Amy Adams and Josh Brolin.

Undoubtedly now Chris Nolan and Villeneuve stand alone, as the Spielberg and Ridley Scott of this decade—few are trusted with such projects so regularly or given the option to pick and choose non-franchise films with huge budgets. After Sicario, Villeneuve’s next three films clocked in at budgets of $50-$200 million dollars, as studios allowed him to bet much bigger. Thematically he took a journey of scale and time from the tiny, short taxi driver/director story in 1998’s Cosmos through a triptych of the current political moment—Incendies in the Middle East / Canada, Prisoners in America, Sicario on the Mexican border—all deal with the wars on terror and drugs in their own way—all thrillers in their own style. Since then, he’s focused on stories that reach beyond this earth into unknown futures and alien worlds with Arrival, Dune and Blade Runner 2049.

Sicario opens with an instant hook—a tremor of a rolling driving bass line. Villeneuve used Jaws as temp music whilst editing the film. His composer, the sadly deceased Jóhann Jóhannsson then brilliantly almost “out-Jawsed” that seminal John Williams soundtrack throughout the film’s set pieces—in Arizona, on the Mexican Border and in night vision tunnels. Mysteriously removed from Blade Runner 2049 and replaced by Hans Zimmer adapting Vangelis, this was one of Jóhannsson’s last major scores before his untimely death in early 2018.

The film opens with Jóhannsson’s bone-cracking bass line, followed by the aforementioned title text explaining the Roman origin of the word Sicario. Self-aggrandizing and mythologizing this story and simultaneously invoking the explanatory cards at the beginning of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982). This is followed by an opening shot of a sunny but beige American Suburbia. It could be a washed-out image from Spielberg’s ET. The suburb is disturbed by military personnel in black, and we then cut to the face of Kate (Emily Blunt) and Ronnie (Daniel Kaluuya). They are both sat in an armored truck in full militarized uniform and gear.

The truck crashes through the wall of a suburban house in an armored vehicle and a flurry of machine gun fire. This is no ordinary suburban home—embedded in the walls of this house, like the Capuchin Crypt in Rome—lie the Dead themselves, victims of the Cartel. The bodies of their victims are literally buried in and behind the walls. Villeneuve uses lingering (Francis) Baconesque close-ups of disfigured faces like the macabre emaciated ‘Sloth’ victim from Fincher’s Seven. When asked what to tell her superiors, Kate merely replies, “the truth.” Like Polanski’s Chinatown sleuth Jake Gittes, looking for the truth and actually caring about it is exactly what will get Kate into trouble. This Arizona sequence ends with part of the house exploding in a booby trap set by the Cartel, invoking Jonathan Demme’s Silence of the Lambs and the decoy booby-trapped house that explodes toward the end of that film.

In the space of a little over five minutes, via this FBI raid on a drugs house, Villeneuve invokes half a dozen of the greatest genre films of the last 35 years. Suburbia is no longer the safe home of the broken but warm families of ET and Jake Gittes and Clarice Starling are transmuted into the body of another young FBI agent Kate. This is all underscored by an ever-ominous Jaws-like soundtrack and chilling neo-noirish imagery like Seven. It is the Arizona of 2015, but like William Gibson’s aphorism—this is both future and present—and as unevenly distributed as it could possibly be. We are clearly in liminal spaces here—the borderlands between horror and sci-fi, between stylized action and political thriller, between truth and fiction, between the behemoth United States and its weaker neighbor Mexico.

It is the horror of suburbia as invoked in Lynch’s lush Blue Velvet picket fence world is replaced by the Cartel’s innocuous sand-colored house. Secrets don’t lie here in severed ears in the grass, but beneath plasterboard and in dusty sheds.

Even in the relative Americana familiarity of Arizona, we are immediately in another country. A hinterland where the rule of law is under extreme scrutiny and the law of the talion is the driver for at least one of our protagonists—the Sicario of the title as embodied by Benicio Del Toro in a career-defining role.


I saw Sicario in the Grand Lumiere at its World Premiere during the 2015 Cannes Film Festival. It feels important to remind myself of that. Looking back, it was a very different time, but the signs were already there to see, on-screen at least. To paraphrase Gramsci, signs that the old world was crumbling and the new had not begun. Perhaps I was blind and for the majority that world—“the beach beneath the pavement,” the enlightenment, objective truth—had already gone, or worse still never really existed. But I still believe Sicario was one of those outlier films, the proverbial canary in the coal mine of the populist fragile world to come for the West. Not just the West of Old America—New Mexico, Texas and Arizona but the West of the Enlightenment—democracy, order and the idea that parents, on both sides of the border, would see better lives for their children. It prefigures the images of incarcerated children on the border that haunted the Trump administration mid-term and led Melania herself to momentarily break ranks with her husband’s zero-tolerance immigration policy and more recently the scenes of chaos in 2023 in El Paso post Title 42. Borders are beige but clearly marked by the nation on your passport.

Sicario clearly operates in a world where a moral compass might just kill you. It’s interesting and significant that Rome is invoked in the title (and opening title legend). Life inside Sicario’s universe is neither black nor white, and the film eventually signals a creeping and largely hidden return to barbarism within the walls of Rome itself. Perhaps the film’s greatest lesson is that life is cheap on either side of this border—regardless of who you are or were (and in fact it is this theme that is taken even further in its excellent sequel Sicario 2: Day of the Soldado (2018)). As Alejandro (Benicio del Toro), the Columbian lawyer cum assassin, the Sicario of the title, says to the persistent ingenue FBI agent Kate, “Listen—nothing will make sense to your American ears, and you will doubt everything we do—but in the end you will understand too.” Comprehending that the system is always the survivor and that people are merely collateral damage is the revelation in Sicario.


Sent on an unclear mission across the border to Juarez, Kate questions what they are actually doing:

“Is there anything I should know?”

Alejandro replies: “You’re asking me how a watch works—for now keep your eye on the time.”

By the end of the film she (and we) understands both the system (the watch) and the morality at play. Mentored by two bad fathers—the shape shifting of Alejandro and the criminality of Brolin’s ex-CIA Matt, she cannot entirely resist either of them. Sicario lives in a post-truth world where no one is bigger than the system and ultimately justice is just a liberal concept whose time has almost certainly passed.

Sicario’s universe is a prescient warning of the world to come post the anointment of Trump. A post-truth world unveiled and unmasked further during the Pandemic. Writing this now, even without the pandemic, Sicario seems like a lifetime ago in both film and politics. Obama was still in the White House; Trump had not even declared himself a serious candidate or invoked the idea of “building a wall” and the war on terror in the Middle East felt like it was drifting to an uneasy close as America withdrew troops from Iraq and Afghanistan—another failed foreign excursion in US foreign policy and the “War on Terror.”

History will remember these Middle East Crusades best perhaps as a successful invocation of the law of the talion (revenge for 9/11) but also as a complete disaster for the region and ultimately America. The 21st century saw a flurry of conflict-based Hollywood films from Rendition and Hurt Locker to Green Zone and Zero Dark Thirty. Like their Vietnamese War-based predecessors, these were all told from an exclusively American point of view—there is only “the other” in this cinema of incursion. And like Trump himself, Sicario turned inwards to look at the enemy at the gate—most popularly embodied and named here and in shows like Narcos or Queen of the South as “the Cartel.”

Sicario‘s modern morality play is foregrounded with the American flag featured throughout alongside Kate. As the ethical lines become blurred the flag becomes less seen. The presence of the flag as a symbol (of power) is much the same way as we see it used in another great American film of the period First Reformed, always placed significantly in frame. The palette of Sicario is outlined in the excellent video essay: Sicario—The Mirage of a Moral World (Digging Deeper, 2016).

… Villeneuve and Deakins chose different colors to represent certain ideals of morality, like blue for justice, black for corruption, and beige for the true morally ambiguous nature of human beings without labels. We see the storytelling power of color in the protagonist Kate. In the beginning of the film, she wears bold blue colors, but as time goes on, it gets desaturated to a bluish grey…

Veteran cinematographer Roger Deakins and Villeneuve work on wide lenses at high tension moments—moments normal Hollywood films would go to medium and close ups. Their use of windows and wide shots gives us both a sense of watching something that we can’t quite see and watching something that is real—a realist documentary style almost. Like most aspects of the film, it’s very deliberate and precise and the message of an amoral lawless real world is very clear. We are always on the edge of truth, whilst embedded in fiction.


Sicario is a film told through curtains and windows, in shades of blue and beige, set on an infamous geographical border (Mexico and the USA), about the paper-thin line between law and lawlessness. It opens with an explosive crime and like Arthur Miller’s great morality play The Crucible, it ends with a signature on a document to restore a so-called order—the State, Capitalism, America, Patriarchy—call it what you will. Sicario and the journey of its powerless protagonist, model FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), reveal this order, as completely corrupt. Her concluding lie and her enforced complicity are necessary to maintain the veneer of truth around the activities of the American state and the CIA / Drugs Enforcement Agency. Throughout the film, lawlessness operates at a state level and criminality is just a question of “Pirates and Emperors” (Noam Chomsky, 1986). The Pirates in this case are the Mexican Cartel. The Emperors, the US government as represented by Matt’s (Brolin) morally ambiguous black-ops department.


It is worth noting here that whilst Villeneuve, Deakins and Johannson bring the film to life, the script is superbly written by Taylor Sheridan—he followed this his first script with the excellent Wind River and the Oscar winner Hell or High Water.

Sheridan of course went on from his trilogy of Neo-Westerns to write the hit show Yellowstone that brought Kevin Costner back to the screen.


Early on in Sicario when asked what she wants from a colleague, as she stands in her blue DEA uniform, Kate answers, “the truth.” And it is this search for the truth that leads her across the border (twice) and into the lawlessness of Mexico. But the real message of Sicario is that the law on both sides of the border is broken and that the “War on Drugs” is as corrupt and vengeful as the Cartel.

By the end of the film Kate has discovered that the ‘watch’ Alejandro referenced earlier is built on lies. He tells her, having clearly threatened her life to ensure the safety of this mission and future ones:

… You should move to a small town where the rule of law still exists—you will not survive here, you are not a wolf, and this is a land of wolves now…

We have come to realize that there is no vaccine for these illnesses. Only revenge. The ‘watch’ Alejandro references when he first talks to her is complex but tells only a subjective reality / time—an amoral American ideology rather than an objective reality. We and eventually Kate understand that the law is dead, and Kate is merely an expendable pawn in this lawless game.

Perhaps though what Sicario really unveils is that what is revealed in the Trump years is a more extreme and transparent continuation of what we already knew even during the Obama years—American aggression goes largely unchecked throughout the world, the CIA operates with impunity and the American economy is primary. Human life, American or not, is just the collateral damage of the nation’s drive for wealth and power.

What Sicario foretells is that America’s new war is not only on its borders but is an old war re-pitched—a war with itself. The power of a woman within the American Dream is insignificant, minute. The ‘watch’ has stopped. The Law is meaningless. And the time is always the same. An un-ending unlawful struggle to keep the drugs flowing, the money protected and America supreme.


In personal terms Sicario is about the rejection of attempts to move the border situation onto a rational basis under the rule of law and to maintain the chaos and the carnage that a state of war implies. It is about failing to move towards a mature approach to the problem and staying stuck in an infantile paranoid schizoid state. The triumph of vengeance, the Talion—an “eye for an eye”; over reason—mature dependence, the proper recognition of difference. America on the beige border, unable to manage itself or its neighbours.

The combination of Villeneuve’s direction, Sheridan’s script, Deakins’ images, Jóhannsson’s score. A heady alchemy that creates arguably the best big screen American moral thrillers since The Parallax View, The French Connection and The Conversation. A dangerous land of wolves on the border.

Graham S. Clarke and Ross Clarke’s book The American Dream and American Cinema in the Age of Trump—From Object Relations to Social Relations (Routledge) is available now.

Photographed by Richard Foreman Jr., Luis Montemayor © Lionsgate Films, Black Label Media, Thunder Road Pictures, Emperor Motion Pictures, Redrum. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.


If you find Cinephilia & Beyond useful and inspiring, please consider making a small donation. Your generosity preserves film knowledge for future generations. To donate, please visit our donation page, or donate directly below:

Spread the love