A World without Law
“You will not survive here. You are not a wolf, and this is the land of the wolves now.”
These words are spoken by the mysterious Alejandro (played by Benicio Del Toro) in the new film Sicario, an intelligent, highly effective action thriller about the deadly drug war along the U.S.-Mexico border. As the story begins, FBI Agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is leading a raid in the suburbs of Phoenix, AZ that ends with a horrific discovery and deadly bomb blast. In response to the escalated violence by Mexican drug cartels, an inter-agency task force is created that draws Kate into the shadowy maneuvers of Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), who claims to be a consultant for the Department of Defense but is also clearly not laying all of his cards on the table. As Kate enters into a high stakes world, neither she nor the audience clearly understands the ultimate objective of the operation. The added presence of Alejandro, a Mexican lawyer who clearly is not along for the ride to teach others about Mexican courtroom etiquette, only serves to exasperate Kate’s confused state of mind and soul.
Sicario, directed by Denis Villeneuve from a screenplay by Taylor Sheridan, is on one level an excellent example of cinematic entertainment. The set pieces are executed with consummate professionalism, including a particularly intense scene in which the task force is attempting to smuggle a potential informer out of Mexico into Texas without being attacked, only to be caught in traffic on the bridge between the two countries as two cars full of armed gunmen track them. However, the cast and crew have created a work of art that transcends its genre and tackles weighty subjects such as the rule of law and how one is to respond to a lawless force such as the Mexican cartels. No cheap, heavy-handed messaging is delivered to the audience, because Villeneuve and his assembled talent respect their viewers enough to let them grapple with the images and ideas being portrayed on screen.
At the heart of Sicario is a contemplation of the consequences, both personally and socially, when the rule of law is abandoned. Kate is an idealistic law enforcer who finds herself incapable of effecting positive change by following the book, but also cannot quite support or understand the actions being taken by Graver and Alejandro, who clearly wish to stomp out the evil of the drug trade and, yet, wind up bending and even breaking the established codes that are meant to govern their actions. Does the end justify the means? Sicario answers this question by saying that the abandonment of law can certainly eliminate a particular criminal element, but it also introduces another one at the same time.
Even though the film does not intend to be a catechetical lesson, it nonetheless does reveal a great deal of truth and ultimately makes an observation about the world that is well worth Catholics taking to heart. The rule of law does appear to be eroding in our world as more and more people blatantly violate duly passed laws and even those in official positions enact policies that directly go against either the natural law or legal precedence. A film like Sicario is a welcomed exploration of what happens when law is abandoned and, should we take its message seriously, hopefully a call for us to walk back our nation’s descent into a world without law.