Sicario: Day of the Soldado is in theaters now. Get your tickets here!
Trigger Warning: This article contains violent, bloody images.
In terms of cinematic craft, Sicario is delightful. Yes, that’s an odd adjective for an extraordinarily brutal, sad movie about the endless spiral of America’s failed war on drugs and its consequences on both macro and micro scales. It fits. Sicario is a nail-crackingly tense thriller. Cinematographer Roger Deakins masterfully captures light and darkness, spaces from vast to cramped. Director Denis Villeneuve fills those spaces with bodies in clear, vicious motion. Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan’s dialogue is a chain of firecrackers. His story has layers beyond the immediate and the visceral. Amongst other things, it examines systemic sexism and interrogates not only the methodology of American foreign policy, but the assumptions upon which that policy is built.
All this superb craft is dedicated to telling a thoughtful, memorable story for grown-ups - it is truly delightful, even for someone who thinks Villeneuve and Sheridan’s differing interests and storytelling styles keep Sicario from reaching the same level as their individual projects. Day of the Soldado, Sicario’s somewhat unexpected sequel, hits theaters this week. Per BMD’s own Jacob Knight it’s “pretty damn good,” and follows its forerunner in being a thorny, hard-hitting picture aimed first and foremost at adults. And with a big thorny, hard-hitting story for grown-ups striking a flare, now’s a perfect time to shine a light on a work of similar tone and quality - Mitch Gerads and Tom King’s comic book miniseries The Sheriff of Babylon.
Ali Al Fahar, a trainee in the nascent Baghdad police force, has been murdered. Christopher Henry, a former American cop contracted to train Al Fahar and his peers, wants to know who killed him and why. During his time as a police officer, Chris had an encounter with one of the men who would perpetrate the 9/11 attacks. He has come to Iraq to try and help. Stonewalled by indifference and bureaucracy, Chris turns to his occasional lover Sofia Al Aqani, a member of the Iraqi Council, for aid.
Sofia (the Westernized version of her birth name Saffiya)’s family was scapegoated and murdered by Saddam Hussein, who feared their power and influence. She escaped death only because she was attending school in the US. In the wake of Hussein’s fall, Sofia has come home to rebuild her nation, and her experience with navigating both Iraqi and American ideologies has made her a rising power.
Sofia reaches out to Nassir Al Maghreb, a former member of Hussein’s police. Nassir and his wife Fatima lost their three daughters to an American bomb, and he would like to be left alone to grieve. But he’s an extremely talented investigator, and he owes Sofia for an old crime and a recent favor. He agrees to meet with Chris and help him solve Al Fahar’s killing.
The murder itself is a simple matter. The circumstances behind it though? They’re an ever-expanding sinkhole of ego-driven terrorism, pettily-motivated spy games and increasingly traumatic violence. Nassir, Sofia and Chris do not get through it unscathed.
Mitch Gerads (Mister Miracle, also with King) penciled, inked and colored The Sheriff of Babylon. He’s a triple threat artist whose work captures reality without simply slapping a photoshop filter over a picture. His characters are always recognizable as themselves. Whether his panels are two-shots of Nassir and Chris sitting down to eat in a restaurant or a wide, high angle of the pair holding an improvised funeral in the blue of night, they’re distinct in everything from the way their clothes fit to their body language. Gerads frequently combines his talent for capturing body language with his skill for expression. No one reacts to anything passively in The Sheriff of Babylon – this is particularly noticeable during Sofia’s sections of the book. She frequently engages in bouts of etiquette chess and verbal jiu-jitsu, and reading her physical reactions is as important as reading her dialogue.
Tom King, The Sheriff of Babylon’s author and two-time Eisner award winner, was once a CIA officer. Part of his service took place in Iraq circa late 2004 - The Sheriff of Babylon’s time frame. King deliberately chose not to tell a story about the CIA. Instead, he set out to capture the feeling of Iraq during the time he was there, and to dig into America’s conceptions of heroism, heroic military intervention and macho badasses. His protagonists are disinterested in and disenchanted by heroism. They just want to solve a murder. When their investigations descend into calamity, they want to survive and get clear of people who want them dead. By contrast, the two most macho characters in the book, men with grand dreams, are the most loathsome people in the story. They fail to see the people around them as people. They try to tell themselves the damage they do is noble. That they feel pangs of conscience and doubt and flee from them still boasting makes them even slimier than if they were utterly devoid of decency.
King tells Chris, Sofia and Nassir’s story elegantly, even poetically. Theirs is just one story from their time and their place in Iraq. Whatever happens to them, the wider world is vaster than they are. And it turns, no matter what. King emphasizes this in a particularly striking way. The book is split between two sets of recurring onomatopoeias: “Bang. Bang. Bang.” in the first half and “Pow. Pow. Pow.” in the second. Their context changes, but the underlying meaning remains the same. Destruction. Chaos. Another day gone, another day to come. It’s a haunting, brilliant, truly grown-up work of comics. Attention must be paid.