There’s a lot of Sicario: Day of the Soldado that feels like a paranoid fantasy. In its first scene, a group of undocumented immigrants crosses the desert south of the United States before being captured by border patrol agents. One of the immigrants breaks from the group, stops, and starts to pray. He speaks neither English nor Spanish. We hear him say “Allahu Akbar” before he is consumed by the blast from a suicide bomb. That’s right. In a matter of seconds, the movie became a wet dream for political commentators of the American far right. InfoWars and Fox News can only dream of breaking a story about Mexican immigrants who are also Islamic terrorists.
The rest of Day of the Soldado is as outrageous as this first moment suggests. Latino critics in the United States have, not without reason, singled it out for contributing to xenophobia, an accusation that feels especially pointed in today’s political climate. The movie seems, in no small part, designed to inspire fear and cynicism towards America’s southern border. But as someone, who was born, grew up, and continues to live in Mexico, I can say that these feelings of fear and cynicism sometimes ring true. Day of the Soldado is afraid of Mexico, but Mexicans are often afraid of Mexico as well — afraid of a country where murders grow every year, one with corrupt leaders more interested in short term than long term results, one where perpetrators of violence suffer little or no consequence.
Following the death of three students in the city of Guadalajara, Guillermo del Toro tweeted: “There are no words to comprehend the magnitude of this madness. Three students are killed and dissolved in acid. The ‘why’ is unthinkable, and the ‘how’ is terrifying.” Mexican journalist Jorge Ramos added “We Mexicans have gotten accustomed to this sort of terror. This doesn’t happen anywhere else. Only in Mexico can one find such a horrifying mix of extreme violence, corruption, absolute impunity and an inability of the government to prevent any of it.”
Though Day of the Soldado is set mostly in Mexico, control remains (more or less) in the hands of United States law enforcers. When a suicide bombing in Kansas City takes several civilian lives, CIA agent Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) puts two and two together and links it with the earlier attack. In order to prevent further attacks, the United States Secretary of Defense (Matthew Modine) gives him clearance start a turf war that, he hopes, will result in the mutually assured destruction of two major Mexican cartels (in a particularly astute moment, Graver points out that capturing the heads of the cartels will only result in their fragmentation and not their extinction). To do so, Graver enlists black ops agent Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro) to kill a cartel lawyer and kidnap Isabel Reyes (Isabela Moner), the daughter of a rival boss.
Director Stefano Sollima rises to the challenge of making a sequel to Denis Villeneuve’s 2015 hit with an effective mimicry of his style. Similarly, cinematographer Dariusz Wolski and composer Hildur Guðnadóttir do impressions of Roger Deakins and the late Jóhann Jóhannsson. The action in Day of the Soldado plays mostly in still wide shots and is accompanied by deep and ominous synthesizer sounds, creating a cold, distant atmosphere. Sequences set inside cars echo the iconic long take in Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men, building up the tension and a sense of disconnection with its characters.
But what better communicates its feelings of desperation and impotence is the plot itself. Incidents may be absurd, but they’re based on real fears. The shooting of the drug lord’s lawyer among the skyscrapers of Mexico City acts as a reminder of how much organized crime has infiltrated the higher spheres of power–and a violent rebuttal to a film like Spectre, which received generous tax incentives from the government of Mexico City, and featured a lovely helicopter shot of this very area. And the scene where Alejandro, Matt and his team are betrayed and ambushed by Mexican police echoes the corruption within many of Mexico’s real state and local police forces.
Even though most of its action takes place within Mexico, the Mexican government barely plays a role. Is it an omission, or a commentary on the current presidency of Enrique Peña Nieto, infamous for its inability to respond to many of the crises the country has suffered under his watch? Whatever screenwriter Taylor Sheridan’s reasoning, it’s not surprising that the movie features a power vacuum that allows the U.S. government to step in, but only in serving its own interests. Interventionism and the cheapening of non-American lives play a key role in Day of the Soldado. This behavior goes unpunished in the movie, as it often goes unpunished in real life.
There are parts of Day of the Soldado that bring to mind, not other jingoist action movies, but Mexican movies about the country’s own violence: Amat Escalante’s Heli and Tatiana Huezo’s devastating documentary Tempestad are but two examples. The feeling that violence is endless and nonsensical, or that institutions are hopelessly corrupt are woven organically into the plot of Day of the Soldado. One subplot following a Mexican-American youth (Elijah Rodriguez) who becomes involved in human trafficking by a cousin’s invitation, complicates the film’s morality. It is also the closest it comes to humanizing those on the other side of the law – and, like David Pablos’ Las elegidas, explores how violence and money contribute to a certain idea of masculinity. Scenes that show the journey of undocumented immigrants share a crudeness and danger with Diego Quemada-Díez’s La jaula de oro, if only on the surface.
Though its violence is definitely exciting and its antihero uncomfortably romantic – a scene where Alejandro communicates via sign language with a man who lives in the desert aims for tenderness and pathos – the movie remains ambiguous to the point of insecurity. It both tries to condemn violence and indulge in it. It both tries to make Alejandro morally disturbed and a cool action hero. What should have made him a mysterious character (he’s a man of few words with a tragic backstory) only makes him boring in the end. He’s supposed to be complicated, but because his morality is so vague, he is never as engaging as Emily Blunt’s character in the earlier Sicario.
Day of the Soldado will most definitely provoke different responses on either side of the border. There’s no right or wrong way to look at the movie. As much as the political climates of Mexico and its neighbor to the north, and the experiences of their peoples are entangled, they are fundamentally different. Drug violence has different effects and connotations in each country (which are further fragmented by the countries’ class and racial makeups). The movie’s portrayal of Mexico as a lawless and violent place has elements of racist caricature, yet it occasionally captures the real insecurity one experiences living here. Mexico remains a country where violence is rampant and where rules often don’t apply. That being said, if Sicario: Day of the Soldado has a lesson, it isn’t that Mexico can only export violence, but that violent intervention by the United States is not the way to end it.