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Screenings and Meanings

By Gerald Schmitz


Wars on drugs and migrants in deadly borderlands



Gerald Schmitz

Sicario (U.S.)
Cartel Land (U.S./Mexico)
Desierto (Mexico/France)

For decades North American governments have pursued a “war on drugs” that has done little to stem the illicit trade, or the vast sums it generates, and a lot to expand the prison population. In the U.S. fears of illegal immigrants and a human trafficking influx are being used by some politicians to whip up xenophobic sentiments. Clearly something is not working and the terrible toll that exacts is the subject of three excellent recent movies.

Quebec director Dennis Villeneuve’s Sicario, which premiered to critical acclaim at the Cannes festival, opens with a shocking sequence when a SWAT team from an FBI anti-kidnapping squad come upon a scene of horrors in Phoenix, Arizona — dozens of mutilated and decomposing bodies from drug-related slayings in a booby-trapped location that explodes killing several agents and injuring others. The story centres on one of the affected agents, Kate Macer, played with steely determination by Emily Blunt. The murders are attributed to Manuel Diaz (Bernardo Saracino), the U.S.-based chief of Mexico’s Sonora drug cartel. A shaken Blunt is summoned by her boss (Victor Garber) and agrees with an FBI partner to be seconded to an inter-agency taskforce assigned to track down Diaz and use him to get to the head of the cartel in Mexico.

Kate is to work with two shadowy figures, American Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and a wolfish Mexican, Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro). Their unconventional and extra-legal methods increasingly arouse her suspicions especially as the team executes a risky cross-border kidnapping in a thrilling superbly staged sequence enhanced by the standout cinematography of Roger Deakins.

The questions weigh on Kate. Is the CIA somehow involved? Does Alejandro have Colombian connections? What are his motives? What is the endgame? It seems the object is to create enough chaos, shutting down a cross-border smuggling tunnel known to migrants, so that Diaz will be called back to Mexico and lead them to the top boss. A secondary storyline follows the family of a Mexican police officer drawn into the corruption of the drug trade who will play a role in the fatal final act.

Through Kate’s eyes we see how ruthlessly the game will be played as she realizes that Alejandro is the “sicario” of the title — the Mexican term for hitman — and that in the “land of wolves,” to use Alejandro’s chilling phrase, the FBI’s presence was just to give a post-facto cover of legality to a homicidal operation. This is a deeply disquieting movie that tightens its grip on the audience to the last second.

Director Matthew Heinemen took serious personal risks to make Cartel Land, a searing documentary (winner of directing and cinematography awards at Sundance) that probes the perils of ostensibly anti-drug vigilante movements on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. In an Arizona valley referred to as “cocaine alley,” a private militia, Arizona Border Recon, headed by army veteran Tim “Nailer” Foley, goes on military-style patrols aimed at stopping drug traffickers in their tracks. Meanwhile in the state of Michoacán, a physician, Dr. José Mireles known as “El Doctor,” becomes a leading figure in the “autodefensas,” armed self-defence citizen groups going after the drug cartels, specifically the “Knights Templar” who have terrorized the region for years leaving a trail of bodies.

Things are not always what they seem in situations that answer violence with violence, especially in Mexico where people have reason not to trust the police any more than the criminals. A striking nighttime desert opening scene shows a group of masked Mexican men cooking up a batch of crystal meth, using the country’s poverty as a justification. A closing reveal shows them to be part of a force supposedly responsible for catching the bad guys. The autodefensas too come into question, perhaps even infiltrated by the cartels themselves. The cracks widen when the populist Mireles is pushed aside in 2014, then arrested by the government on weapons charges. Arizona’s Foley in contrast is a fringe character in society with little use for government, his band operating like a lone wolfpack. In both cases the “shoot first” lawless nature of such private wars confounds the aim of protecting the population.

I’ve already mentioned Jonás Cuarón’s Desierto as a noteworthy selection of the Toronto film festival where it received an international critics’ award. The writer-director, son of master filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón (and co-writer of 2013’s Gravity), presents a no-holds-barred fictional drama in which defenceless Mexican migrants illegally crossing the Sonora desert into American territory are literally hunted down by a remorseless lone vigilante.

In this austere unforgiving landscape, we first see a truckload of anxious migrants, men and women, young and old, being unloaded then led by a guide on foot to a border crossing. They have no choice but to trust the traffickers and hope to avoid detection by border police. Among them are a father, Moises (Gael García Bernal), carrying a teddy bear for his son in Oakland and a young woman, Adela (Alondra Hidalgo), carrying her family’s hopes for a better life. Until the first lethal shots ring out, they don’t know they are being watched by a man and his dog in a jeep flying the Confederate flag. The man, Sam (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), fuelled by whiskey and hatred, is itching to use his long-range rifle while the dog Tracker awaits orders to run down and kill. He has contempt for government agents and the law. His relentless racist war is personal.

Desierto unfolds as an extreme chase thriller in which the only question is whether anyone, specifically Moises and Adela, can survive. The intensity builds (watch for the scene with a flare gun) to an edge-of-your-seat climactic struggle.

In these three movies the real horror is what human beings do to each other.

* An update to last week’s column on Afghan-themed movies: avoid Barry Levinson’s Rock the Kasbah which ostensibly takes place in Afghanistan (actually filmed in Morocco) even if you like its star Bill Murray. This extremely lame comic misfire has him playing an aging has-been rock promoter managing a hapless Afghan tour to entertain American troops who, on discovering a sweet-singing Pashtun girl, concocts a self-serving scheme to have her compete in the television program Afghan Star. That is an actual program, now in its 10th season (, and was the subject of the award-winning 2009 documentary Afghan Star, which offers real insight on Afghan society and the challenges facing female contestants.