Some Ramblings - Sicario (2015) by Srinivas Kanchibhotla
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Supply-side or demand-end? Now that's the question that has been haunting administrations from decades. 'War on drugs', 'Drug Czar' and other such belligerent and bellicose titles and phrases indicate that the powers that be want to address the issue from the supply side. Cut off the source, drive out the players, dry out the market and the problem is done and dusted, jingoistically claims that approach. For every problem in the world, there surely lies a solution that involves a gun, goes the drug policy wonk in Washington, who is far removed from the harsh realities on the ground. And so billions of dollars flow out of coffers every year arming the alphabet soup of agencies - DEA, ATF, FBI, CIA (along with their mother organizations Department of Justice and Department of Defense) on the domestic side, and doling out equal amounts, if not more, to the counterparts on the foreign soils, all with the singular goal of nipping the bud of the coca crop right at the field level. Now, after more than four decades of that faulty policy, the drug problem in America seems nowhere close to be at a logical end, as addictions remain at an all time high (pardon the pun), low income neighborhoods continue to reel under the gang violence of turf wars, the wide spread availability of low grade drugs, and due to an unforeseen offshoot of drug violence - the insatiable appetite and the rapid proliferation of assault weapons, from hand guns all the way till AK47 and AK56s. What should have been a health issue, disabusing the drug abusing of the addiction from a medical standpoint, the drug situation in America (on the consumer end) and in Latin America (the producing end) has blown out into an all out law and order issue. And with all the parties firmly digging their heels in their hard stances, there seems to be no end in sight to the body count - be it because of the needles or because of the bullets.

'Sicario' is a no frills, no fat, bareboned depiction of the drug menace on both sides of the Texan border (El Paso - Juarez, Mexico) from the enforcement angle. Like clockwork, every new change in administration, either in US or in Mexico, brings the key people in the government on a perfunctory visit to Juarez (dubbed the most violent city in the world), amidst very high security of course, to reaffirm their commitment to ending the drug violence and reiterate the mutual cooperation of the governments in plugging up the porous channels that enable the movement of the product with ease and impunity. This a quadrennial affair, much like the Olympics. Come November, fresh elections in the US, new President sworn in during January, and a few months from there, a trip to Juarez and the associative photo ops. The drug cartels know better to keep quiet during those few months and before the ink dries up on the new MOU's and renewed agreements, a blood bath of vicious scale and venomous degree ensue. No, this is not mere gunning down of opponents by the cartels during the street battles. There are beheadings, mutilations of unfathomable kind, car bombings, targeted assassinations (reserved to the judicial staff) and every depraved act of savagery and barbarism known to man. And the aim of it all - to terrorize the people and the administration from getting in the way of the cartel. Here a straightforward murder is not a culmination of vengeance, it merely is a message telegraphing the imminent wrath of far greater cruelty. 'Can't beat them? Join them' goes the saying and the Juarez police and the state military have taken that advice to the heart. A chilling fact that most of the foot soldiers of the cartels are either ex-cops or ex-military drags the muddied situation into hopeless territory. The common folk know better to not come in the way of the drug pins and the enforcement is wiser to not go against their diktats. And so the reign of the drug lords goes on unchallenged (except by their own ilk), unfettered and uninhibited. And so, while all the tall talk, the policies, and the bravado of taking the cartels by their horns continue to languish in official statements and press releases in Washington, the quality (and worse, the value) of life in Juarez continues to fall below the market price of the product being peddled far away in the streets of U.S of A.

A few years ago Steven Soderbergh's 'Traffic' (based on an even better British series 'Traffik') tried to paint the picture from all ends - from the mounting pressure on the administration to show instant results (drug busts, cash seizures, high profile arrests and convictions), to the daily grind of the cartel head balancing the act of family man at night and a ruthless executioner by day, from the everyday life of the Mexican police caught in the crossfire between the cartels gunning for their heads and their top brass pushing them to be more proactive in the field and finally to the end user, both the recreational kind and the relapsing variety. And every facet of the issue screams of the same conclusion that drugs are a health issue, not a law and order one. Legalize them, bring them under the ambit of the health care (much like tobacco and alcohol) and the 20% drug market share of US (per the movie), that is purportedly destroying life in Latin America by indirectly encouraging to produce, process, distribute and control the drug market, and putting extraordinary pressure on the resources and economy domestically, would soon be credited for saving lives for once, both on the producing and the consuming sides. Until then, the sequences portrayed realistically (and brutally and brilliantly) in 'Sicario' plays on endlessly as though stuck in some time warp loop.

Understatement seems to be the personal statement of Denis Villeneuve, the director of 'Sicario'. There is no space for drama here as he allows the scenes to play out as though in real time in real life. The tone is often muted and subdued and so when the violence flares up, the impact is very unsettling and hard hitting. Assisting his vision in every step of the way is the fantastic photography work by Roger Deakins (could someone give this man an Oscar already?) capturing the arid urban sprawl of Juarez in glorious detail. (A tip of the hat to a similar sequence in 'Clear and Present Danger', another drug mess involving the administration, this time in Columbia, is a prisoner extraction sequence from within the deep bowels in Juarez in 'Sicario', an amazing segment shot with an foreboding sense of danger and urgency). And kudos to the amazing sound design which has silence filling up most of the movie time, and the rest, with a pulsating thump of low frequency sounds.

The film ends on a very depressing note of children playing soccer in a playground in Juarez, pausing for a little while allowing for the rattle burst of gun fire from a nearby neighborhood to die down and resuming their play as though nothing happened. Indeed, nothing is happening.




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