Teasing Threads – Sundry Film and Literary Criticism: Denis Villeneuve’s ‘Sicario’

Chris Palazzolo looks at Sicario, directed by Denis Villeneuve, 2015

Power can be a very dirty business. Who of us ordinary citizens wants to spoil our breakfasts, or give our kids nightmares knowing every rotten trick our nations get up to in order to defend our vital interests? In democracies we elect representatives to government and for the next three or four years we let them wear the burden of decisions they make on our behalf. In dictatorships we don’t even have to do that; if we behave ourselves (or not suffer the misfortune of belonging to a disfavoured group) we can go through life sweetly oblivious of any unpleasantness committed by our team at all.

Nonetheless there is always someone doing the dirty work and someone prepared to go to considerable lengths to tell us about it. Usually the job of telling is that of the journalist. But when it comes to the really nasty business, government bureaucracies can generate baroque layers of disinformation to shut out the press, so it’s left to guesswork on the part of fiction writers, filmmakers and conspiracy theorists to join the dots.  Nowhere in the credit sequence of Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario did I see the intertitle ‘Based on a True Story,’ so I have to conclude that the movie is entirely speculative, and yet it has the ring of such scandalous plausibility that I can just imagine some senior mandarin in the US State Department actually shaping a policy of ‘narcotics importation management’ around it. An FBI agent is seconded as an observer to a rather shady para-military police operation targeting the smuggling of cocaine across the US/Mexico border. The agent suffers a crisis of conscience when she realises that her presence is nothing more than a fig leaf of legitimacy for a highly illegal Black Ops incursion into Mexico to liquidate a Mexican drug lord, not to stop the flow of coke into the US, but to manage it by aiding Columbian cartels to regain their monopoly of the trade. The benefit to the US is this: cocaine production is pushed back into the heart of South America; the logistics of exporting to the US from Columbia will push the price of coke back up to what it was in the 1980s making it once again an exclusive vice of the rich by eliminating its cheap proletarian derivative, crack.

The devilish seductiveness of this plan makes it different to other left-wing ‘narcotic’ conspiracy theories. These typically take their narrative cue from the Opium Wars in 1850s China when the British navy attacked Chinese authorities trying to stop imports of opium into their ports. The theories reject official British explanations of correcting a balance of trade (opium was the only commodity Chinese traders were willing to buy) and allege more wicked motives (stoned coolies were cheaper and more compliant for British companies than non-stoned ones). Other left-wing conspiracy theories, like the one that the CIA prosecuted the Vietnam War in order to control the Golden Triangle, flood US cities with heroin and destroy the counter culture and anti-war movements, also infer pure ideological malice on the part of the conspirators. The conspiracy at the heart of Sicario has at least a kernel of the humane. Coke may be the drug of rock stars and Wall Street traders, but crack is a drug of the poor, and the degradation of crack addiction is a serious social issue in the US. The plan hints at a more rational approach by US authorities to drugs, one which goes to the business model. It can be seen on a continuum with other progressive measures such as the de-criminalisation and even legalisation of cannabis in some US states (de-criminalised and legal cannabis has a competitive advantage over illegal imported drugs). That humanity however seems to stop at the border. Nowhere in the movie is there mention of US cooperation with Mexico for programmes to divert its capital class from investing in these industries and its proletarians from working in them. The covert stuff makes for the exciting cinema, but they could’ve mentioned something about it, some indication of longer term strategic thinking for the region. Perhaps a quick briefing on such plans might’ve mollified Emily Blunt’s FBI agent. As it is she is treated with such contempt she has no choice, as an officer of the law, to denounce the criminality of the operation and try to shut it down. And what of poor Columbia, should the plan succeed, consigned once again to el infierno de narcomilitarismo?

– Chris Palazzolo


Teasing Threads is Chris Palazzolo, novelist and poet, editor at Regime Books in Perth, radio host on 6EBA FM North Perth, and manager of one of the last video shops in the world – Network Video, Roleystone.

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