‘El Sicario’ tells horrifying story in minimalist fashion

  • By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic
  • Friday, January 13, 2012 2:57pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

For its 90-minute running time, “El Sicario, Room 164” plays like the scariest “60 Minutes” episode you never saw. A man, wearing a black hood, sits in a motel room in Juarez and describes his career as an enforcer for Mexico’s drug cartels.

His identity is hidden because both law enforcement and drug kingpins would undoubtedly like to see him put away (or worse).

Known as El Sicario here, he was formerly involved in the kidnapping of people who owed his bosses. But kidnapping was only the beginning of his grisly duties.

Sometimes the stories involve torture, rape and murder. In fact, he says, this very motel room was the site of some of these sessions, which he then rises to re-enact as he describes them.

This would be a fascinating and horrifying story just as a piece of journalism. And writer Charles Bowden, who participated in the film, first profiled El Sicario for a Harper’s magazine piece in 2009.

The movie might sound like it’s barely more than an article, but it is intriguing in its minimalist style. Obviously, we are robbed of the human face here, our usual way into most movies. And except for a few shots of Mexican landscapes, the film remains inside the motel room.

As though to make up for this, the hitman holds a large notebook, in which he draws pictures, showing how a car pulls up next to another car to get a good shot at a victim, or other visual aids to his dire story line.

Director Giancarlo Rosi does very little to disguise the limitations of this situation. Many documentary filmmakers might have: dramatic reenactments, digital graphics, the kind of thing a director resorts to when he doesn’t have faith in his material.

But there’s something chilling about simply watching a man wearing a hood who holds a Sharpie in his big, beefy paw (the only part of his body we see) as he draws his childlike pictures, calmly talking about how a kid from a large, poor family ended up running jobs for seriously violent gangsters.

In the end, the simplicity is what makes the film. The Sicario’s story even has a happy ending, if you want to see it that way, but it’s not nearly enough to take away the chill.

“El Sicario, Room 164”

Like the scariest “60 Minutes” episode you never saw: A man in a black hood sits in a Juarez motel room, talking about his career as an enforcer for the Mexican drug cartels. There’s something about the simplicity and claustrophobia of this situation that makes the movie work in a new, chilling way. In Spanish, with English subtitles.

Rated: Probably R for language, subject matter.

Showing: Northwest Film Forum.

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