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Sicario and Defining Strength: Laughing at all the wrong places

Did you ever go to a movie and wonder what the audience was thinking?

Sicario cast

Credit: Lionsgate

In Philadelphia, I had been to movies where the audience loudly booed.  Some of these are great to superb films — No Country for Old Men is the biggest one that comes to mind.  At the same time, booing at anything is somewhat of a pastime in Philadelphia.

Leaving Philadelphia and coming to the South, film-going audiences are generally more polite and genial.  However, I’ve experienced something arguably more insidious–inappropriate reactions at the wrong times in movies.  These reactions mostly go in the opposite direction and are overtly positive or outright jubilant.

My wife and I went to see the film Sicario at an advance screening last week and were disturbed and dismayed by the audience reaction.  In discussing this, I need to get into a few minor spoilers.


In Sicario, Emily Blunt’s character is a surrogate for the audience — an agent in over her head and often confused as to what is happening.  It’s a brilliant conceit to put the audience in the same position as the lead protagonist.  We are experiencing the horror that she is, step by step.  This includes confusion over the Spanish language, government/military verbiage, and what is happening at any given moment.

In the film, Blunt acts as a good counterpoint to the group she volunteers to serve with to fight the war on drugs.  She wants to get the job done, but doesn’t believe the ends justify the bloody, violent, unethical means.  It is a tricky balance that Blunt walks, but she pulls it off admirably.  The people she works alongside on the mission also do a great job in being despicable characters for the audience to reject.

Here’s the thing: despite Sicario being what the AV Club calls the “polar opposite of a crowd-pleaser”, the audience in this screening was highly pleased for all the wrong reasons.

They actively rooted against Blunt and for her morally bankrupt teammates.  Laughing and cheering was constant during the screening of the movie.  A movie that was meant to disturb and instill feelings of dismay over the futility of the United States War on Drugs instead made many people jubilant and energized leaving the theatre.  

An American crisis: confusion around a definition of “strength”

Walking out of the movie, a gentleman with a smile on his face summed up the overarching feeling in much of the crowd, “that girl was really in over her head, wasn’t she?”

She was, but it wasn’t a sign of weakness.  Her general unwillingness to kowtow to morally bankrupt, evil forces is admirable in the context of the film.  It is sad that people viewed these bankrupt characters as “cool” or “badass” in how easily they often were able to put aside any sort of moral fiber in their bodies to kill and torture others.

It’s a similar tough line that another drug-related piece of entertainment, Breaking Bad, walks.  There are many scenes in the show that are impressively staged and viscerally thrilling.  However, we can be seduced into rooting for a reprehensible man in the form of Walter White.  Breaking Bad–like Sicario–is brilliant in this way, making us reconsider what we think is valid and right when it comes to making morally bankrupt decisions.

We also see this with current presidential candidate Donald Trump.  His lack of a filter–and empathy–along with a pushy, bullying nature is viewed as masculine strength, when it’s anything but.

A larger problem manifests when people don’t engage with the material and laugh or cheer it off.

Good and bad is a series of greys

Put simply, I don’t feel as though many Americans can handle good and evil being a series of greys.  The nuance is lost. Physical intimidation and competency in killing is viewed as ‘strength’ and only a couple steps away from fascism.

It is the major problem I have with a movie like 300.  As a movie, 300 is very well made and pulls upon many reliable genre tropes like the underdog and revenge as motivation. However, its focus on Might Makes Right leaves a sour aftertaste.  There is no more emblematic symbol of this overarching ethos than Leonidas’ kicking of a Persian emissary into a well.  We don’t need to talk this through.  We need to be strong and kill whoever gets in our way.

Maybe this speaks to something bigger in the context of our country?  America is used to being #1 and being told we aren’t wrong.  American exceptionalism is at an all-time high during the presidential election campaign.  It is a horribly bitter pill to swallow to be told we aren’t good at something.  Sicario is that pill.  


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