Gianfranco Rosi’s terrific documentary El Sicario, Room 164 runs a compact, carefully modulated 80 minutes, the brunt of which is occupied by a man in a nondescript hotel room facing the camera and recounting elements of his life. For the entirety of the film, the man goes unnamed, wears an opaque black veil, and is dressed all in black. He is both our subject and our one and only source of information, a figure of both stark objectivity and quiet bias.
He’s middle-aged, perhaps in his 50s; this much we can discern, and he speaks and acts with startling directness and assurance given his criminal history. The man—who appears in Rosi’s previously unoccupied frame after a series of hauntingly unmoving shots of Juárez, a city on the border of the U.S. and Mexico, and a bland motel room—we come to learn, used to be a ‘sicario,’ the Mexican term for was is basically a hit man. In his childhood, the man was lured under the wing of a powerful drug cartel (referred to simply as a ‘narco’) and groomed until adulthood to obtain the skills necessary to reach the status of a sicario, instilled with capabilities of swiftness, identification, and blunt violence even, at one point, covertly accepted into the local police academy. As the film progresses, the man exposes with transfixing, unblinking declaration, the various methods and goings-ons within the criminal underworld he was once very much apart of, sharing with the audience his and others’ exploits, sometimes verbally and occasionally via physical reenactment. All of this is realized with impressive formal and structural integrity and scrupulous subtlety on Rosi’s part, with the talented director letting its sole subject speak for himself in the purest sense, for the most part restraining any interruption editorially or aesthetically. El Sicario’s subject is unwavering, succinct, and exacting, and Rosi admirably and fascinatingly mirrors the man’s cadence on an aesthetic and formal level.
The film is pocketed with brief, mysterious and elliptical interludes: chillingly unpeopled shots of Mexican streets, buildings, cars, and intersections, and, indeed, El Sicario derives much of its gravity from the terror and shadows of what we do and do not know. We come to get a sense of the man at the center of the movie on an intimate basis, but after the credits roll we still have no idea who he is or what he looks like. We become familiar with the inside of the seemingly inconsequential motel room in which the majority of the film takes place, and yet we’re never privy to what or where the motel itself is. The images Rosi conjures up, seemingly spaces to catch your breath between the staggering anecdotes and morsels of information our subject has to offer, are actually just as thrillingly cryptic as the interview segments themselves—though at first glance these snapshots of assorted mundanities are, well, just that, it slowly starts to sink in that we have no idea who’s operating the police car we’re following or what’s going on inside the building the camera is fixated on, and that lack of knowledge is one of the film’s strengths, and the feeling it produces its defining trait.
By that same token, El Sicario has a haunting brokenness at its core, a purposeful feeling of half-filled incompleteness. The film is three-quarters thick, riveting substance and one-quarter hollow, echoey emptiness that resonates effectively with the deadening that clearly plagues its subject and his past.
This comes to a head in scenes such as the one in which our lead character reenacts a series of tense exchanges that occurred years ago in the hotel room in which the majority of the proceedings take place. As he physically mimics what happened with often alarming conviction, the lack of anyone else in the room speaks to the dehumanization intrinsic to a life in crime. As such, many scenes in the film feel as though Rosi extracted every element from every shot that wasn’t absolutely crucial, resulting in the film’s eliciting of a pervasive spatial and atmospheric emptiness. The picture’s utilization of this most elemental of minimalist aesthetics is absolutely crucial to its success, and vital to our understanding of the expansive yet barren guilt and destitution that haunts El Sicario’s troubled subject, a figure, it should be noted, fittingly of many puzzling complexities and contradictions.
But El Sicario isn’t clinical or unfeeling, nor is it devoid of human or emotional interest. Admittedly, it demonstrates an unrelenting—and unrelentingly subtle—formal mastery, and is, essentially, an 80-minute stretch of expertly prolonged, tragically-tinged dread. However, unlike the showy, ultimately one-note visual pyrotechnics of Sean Durkin’s overvalued Martha Marcy May Marlene, another film that attempted to communicate a sustained feeling of anxiety and terror against a backdrop of one person wrestling with a troublesome past, El Sicario is dotted with extremely brief yet startling instances of humanity and hope, which is more than one can say for Durkin’s fashionably cynical and nihilistic first feature.
Amidst all of the talk of brutal violence and extensive corruption and excessive drug use, Rosi is sure to include an anecdote in which our subject details the extent to which the mob pampered him as a teenager, describing the way he was envied in high school by his peers because of his designer sneakers, an episode he recounts not with braggadocio but tender, cautious giddiness. In this heartbreaking moment, the man’s sensitivity shines through, revealing, in a moving turn of events, that the dehumanization inherent to his previous profession hasn’t completely engulfed him, and, by extension, demonstrating that El Sicario isn’t a film of imposed, extended bleakness but rather a potent, genuine blend of sadness and horror, sprinkled economically with moments indicating some semblance of hope without condoning the man’s plainly wretched behavior and transgressions.
In El Sicario, style and substance are linked and share a great deal of resonance. Given the amount of time our character spends laying out the intricate power structures and systems of control and even manipulation within the criminal underworld he endured for so many years, Rosi’s (powerful, yet never overbearing) aesthetic and formal control from an authorial standpoint feels all the more prescient. Relatedly, the film’s deceptively minimalist aesthetic, all empty spaces and still, simple compositions, made up of a narrow color pallet of midday-sun-washed beiges, browns, tans, and yellows goes a long way, when paired with the weight of the content here clearly on display, to suggest an unassuming, even banal surface with caverns of implication, meaning, and haunting substance beneath it, very much echoing the intrinsically deceptive nature of the Sicario’s past life. In the presence of a sicario, no word or appearance is to be trusted, as the sicario’s veil is rarely—if ever—lifted.