Taylor Sheridan is one of the best writers currently working in film. “Sicario,” “Hell or High Water,” and “Wind River” are fantastic. His latest, “Sicario: Day of the Saldado,” however, is a slight misstep in his otherwise excellent career.
The first “Sicario” dealt primarily with the over-the-border drug trade sponsored by sadistic cartels. The viewer follows Emily Blunt’s character as she’s baptized by fire into the violent politics of managing the drug trade from Mexico.
The goal is not to defeat it. People will always want drugs. The goal is simply to manage the violence, keeping it at “acceptable” levels. The film is entrancing, mostly due to excellent direction, writing, and acting. But once it’s over there are no warm fuzzies. The viewer feels as if he’s witnessed a documentary about some of the darkest aspects of life, not a tightly told film about the war on drugs.
One of the darkest subplots from the original surrounds Del Toro’s character. He is the sicario—assassin. He has a vendetta to settle with the cartels for murdering his family. This minor story becomes more central to “Sicario 2.” Without revealing too much, Brolin’s returning character is tasked with turning Mexico into a war zone.
He’s a special operations director, with expertise in this sort of thing. But this time he’s been brought in because Middle Eastern suicide bombers have made it into the American heartland and their immigration path has been traced to Mexico. So to enact tighter immigration constraints the U.S. government wants to take away the cartels’ ability to traffic people into the United States by making them fight each other. Del Toro is re-recruited to cause mayhem.
Unfortunately, that never really happens. The trailers made it look like a ridiculous action film, but the final product is actually quite tame.
Replacing Tragedy with Cynicism
“Sicario 2” presents more of the same themes and quality from Sheridan’s previous writings, but is slightly lacking. For one thing, they used a typical sequel set-up instead of trying to logically continue the story from the first film. Still, there’s a lot to like here. The terrorist bombing sequence at the beginning should go down as one of the most intense ever filmed. But aside from a few other moments of tension, it is generally inferior to its predecessor.
This sequel wasn’t necessary, which is evidenced by the fact that the main sympathetic protagonists from the first film are absent. None of the characters are particularly relatable this time around. They all feel cynical, essentially power protagonists.
None of the performances are lacking. Everyone is convincing. But Sheridan has left his fundamentally tragic vision of the contemporary western and replaced it with cynicism. The western trappings of this film belong to one of my least favorite subgenres: the Mexican revolutionary or political Euro Westerns from the late 1960s. Whereas those films were often mired in watered-down Marxist anti-fascism, however, Sheridan has infused this film with the exact opposite: genuine moral ambiguity.
Moral ambiguity is seen as almost cliché in our postmodern context, but usually what we mean by it isn’t morally ambiguous at all. Usually it means something we all know is basically evil but we’re tricked into rooting for it anyway. But none of Sheridan’s films have white or black knights. He presents a truly reality-based worldview, not passing praise or blame, but usually there’s a moral hook upon which to hang your hat. “Sicario 2” lacks that, and it drains some life from the narrative.
Departing From Sheridan’s Attractive Underlying Morality
This is why I think Sheridan’s films have been consistently and fundamentally conservative in outlook. It’s not so much that there is a good guy to root for. But that morality itself can be seen and felt in his narratives.
Morality isn’t a public policy. It’s a relationship between you and another, between you and God, between you and yourself. There are no such things as immoral governments or societies. These are abstractions that can be used in the service of both good and ill. That is why American democratic republicanism is the closest thing there is to a “moral” system. It’s based on the belief that relationships between persons are the true stuff of morality and government needs to get out of the way of that.
“Sicario 2,” like the original, is culturally important for this moment because of how it tries to realistically depict illegal immigration from Mexico. It doesn’t really present a partisan perspective, but seems to be trying to show the world as it currently is. As far as I can tell, it depicts the problems on our southern border with relative accuracy. It made the process of illegal immigration look ugly and harrowing. This was a minor theme in the first film, and this time around it occupies considerably more space.
America’s welfare state and federal income tax are the biggest obstacles to a healthy immigration system. Instead, however, “Sicario 2” highlights one of the biggest problems with attempts at highly restrictive immigration: the role of the cartels in making illegal immigration a business. The barriers we’ve erected attracted men who found ways around them then charged others for this knowledge. The more we restrict border access, the more it seems to increase cartels’ profit from illegal border trade.
Just as removing something may have a destabilizing effect, so also may adding things, such as border enforcement. Unintended consequences are the eternal tragedy of policy, and this is the puzzle of our current predicament.
Our immigration policies and laws are not very good, but they could always get worse. So it’s important when a film like this highlights the problem realistically. It’s also important that it did not try to provide answers when most people misunderstand the very question.
Overall, the film worked well as a sort of espionage thriller but it’s clearly inferior to the original. It was still beautifully shot and acted, but just a more shallow story overall. It deals with some “political” themes with relative accuracy, but not in a heavy-handed way. I rate it 7.5/10.