Draped in a baggy, featureless hood, dressed entirely in black, the unnamed subject of Gianfranco Rosi’s El Sicario, Room 164 resembles a medieval executioner, a fitting image considering his grim past. A high-end enforcer, or sicario, for a Mexican cartel, he was recruited from at an early age, entered into the police academy for training, then positioned to play both sides of the law, spending the next 20 years torturing, killing, and trafficking at the behest of an all powerful boss.
This story is recounted in stiflingly tight compositions, mostly a static front-on shot, alternating with quick peeks over the man’s shoulder, capturing his impulsive explanatory doodles, which end up nearly filling a jumbo Moleskine notebook. This rigidity is matched by the movie’s one setting, room 164 in a motel somewhere near the U.S.-Mexico border, where the Sicario used to break down victims before passing them over to the cartel.
The seemingly flat aesthetic is bound and tagged by three details that would otherwise seem inconsequential. The first is the sicario’s masked face, an impassive blank slate matched by a subdued voice, flatly conveying stories of casual cruelty. The second is an opening montage that takes in the shape and surfaces of the motel room, which we’ll later learn was the scene for some unbelievably brutal acts. The third is the seemingly pointless sketches made by the sicario, amateur depictions of cars and safe houses, which seem less illustrative than necessary for the man’s thought process. They share a common thread as dead-end explanatory tools, providing details that, despite their seemingly instructive status, inevitably communicate nothing about why any of this happened. The same goes for the sicario’s story, which stresses his status as one soldier among many, as well as the banal arc of his escape by way of newfound religious faith. A lot of evil is laid on the table in El Sicario, and the film makes a big, if exquisitely subtle show, of theorizing that there’s no way to explain how it got there.
The persistent idea that we’re being presented with an unreliable narrator, that there’s no way of knowing how much of this anonymous man’s story is true, how much of it is high-flown bragging, only makes El Sicario more interesting. He seems at least slightly affected by Saint Augustine’s syndrome, the condition by which former sinners are driven to inflate their sins to epic proportions, so that their conversions seem all the more miraculous, simultaneously heaping notoriety on themselves and glory upon God. But it’s impossible to know the truth, and the sicario’s eventual unknowability only accentuates the banally terrifying effect of the monster behind the mask. By the end he’s become a figure of strikingly passive evil, who has merely stepped from one master to another. Normal except for the $250,000 bounty on his head, he ends the interview and returns to his family, an anonymous figure with the blood of hundreds on his hands.