El sicario: Room 164 – Movie Review

What appear to a monologue documentary illuminates the elephant in the room. We are the killers.

“El Sicario” is the first hand account of a man born, bred, groomed, trained and educated to be the guy you least want to see in your life. If you see him at PTA meetings or community fund raisers, that is fine.

If you see him on matters of business, he is the grim reaper come to exact vengeance. The worst of the latter scenario is that when you see him coming you know exactly what you have done to deserve it.

The documentary’s screenplay is based on the Harper’s Magazine article by Charles Bowden, “The Sicario: A Juarez Hit Man,” and “El Sicario: The Autobiography of a Mexican Assassin,” a book edited by Bowden and Molly Molloy.”

The film is exactly what the book titles suggest, a stripped down retelling of the life and times of a mob enforcer working the Mexico/American border. “El Sicario” won the 2010 FIPRESCI prize at the Venice Film Festival (Gianfranco Rosi was nominated at the 1994 Sundance FF for his documentary “Boatman”).

The entire film is a man talking to the camera while sketching pictures on a paper tablet. The man is wearing a hood that completely covers his face, head and neck.

He is a talking head, without the head. Perhaps filmmaker Gianfranco Rosi (also wrote the screenplay) knew that the film might be a bit too minimalists if the ere was nothing but a talking head without the head, so he added the sketches. There is no way of telling if the voice is that of the hit man, or even if it is the hit man under the hood or if there ever was a hit man.

Having said that, few members of the viewing audience will care who is under the hood. The monologue is as riveting as it is chilling. The American assassin went from the highwayman of the 1700’s, to the cowboy gunslinger of the 1800’s, to the bootlegger of the 1900’s.

In the twentieth century the mob enforcer morphed into the model depicted in the “Godfather” series; the quiet family man who takes the shot gun out of the house in the flower box, shreds three people in an elevator and drives home in time to mow the lawn before dinner.

El sicario is like that, the narrator tells us. He is married, has a family, is college educated, well-spoken and polite and never threatens anybody. He kidnaps, maims, tortures and kills when he is told, and how he is told.

There is more than a little romanticizing in this. El sicario works for a mad man, or a series of mad men, who would just as soon kill him and his family as look at them. His bosses will torture, cripple and scar for life five families of men, women and children to get the one informer among them.

Filmmakers Gianfranco Rosi and Charles Bowden thoughtfully avoid these details and concentrate on the art and science of physical pain and death and the business/logistical side of mob operations. Perhaps it is the minimalist nature of the headless talking head with the sketchbook delivering the monologue, but the result is mesmerizing.

There is nothing that the person says that does not ring perfectly true. Kidnapping starts with days of surveillance culminating in six cars in six streets surrounding the target’s house or business. When the victim leaves, there are two cars there. If shots are fired, they are fired in a staggering volley in exactly the right place. No one is hurt and kidnapping is a success.

Quite a bit of romanticizing. Is the film reporting the truth or is it telling the story we would like to believe? After all, smart non-vicious, sane killers are better than vicious, sadistic, insane killers.

Are they not? Assuming the average person thinks they are, then the average person will feel very smug sitting in a safe movie theater watching a safe killer convince the world they are safe, as long as they do not interfere with business. Having said that, it is pleasurable to see into a hidden world with such apparent accuracy and precision.

The organizational side of el sicario seems especially believable. Recruited from childhood, the hit man is raised in an environment of unquestioning loyalty. In many cases, the mob arranges for him to attend the police academy. Indeed, the narrator of this film claims to have graduated from the academy. The press materials indicate he was a police commander in the Mexican state of Chihuahua.

This may be the most important message in the film. If the movie makes the degrading humiliation of illicit drug use seem like business as usual, that would make sense. Because in America, it is life as usual. Just as anybody in American can get cocaine, marijuana and meth at any time, so this has become a business.

As cozy as that is, in watching this film it occurs to the viewer that the real criminal act is not the killing of one mobster by another. It is the willful causation of the killing by drug using Americans who, absurdly enough, think they are without blame. They consider their drug use to be a victimless crime, while another family is systematically raped and burned to death in Juarez.

The real message of this film is that the illegal drug business may be the biggest international corporation in the world and we are the shareholders. No other message makes sense, because, in the final analysis, there is no other way mayhem could be business as usual.

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Directed by: Gianfranco Rosi
Written by: Gianfranco Rosi, Charles Bowden (story)
Release Date: December 28, 2011
MPAA: Not Rated
Running Time: 84 Minutes
Country: USA / France
Language: Spanish
Color: Color