To follow news of the Mexican cartel wars is to perpetually learn anew of the worst thing you have ever heard of: the village-size mass graves, the revenge-killings on entire families. This is the silent wreckage; El Sicario, Room 164 introduces us to the personnel.
The film opens “on the border U.S./Mexico.” We are in a nondescript motel room. A burly, thick-waisted man, presumably in middle age, tops off his all-black outfit with a black cowl concealing his face. This is the subject and narrator of El Sicario, Room 164, who, holding court, provides all of the film’s dialogue; a few phrases from a sorrowful guitar are the only commentary on what he says. The film’s sparse, almost banal presentation is a virtue, for to boldface the horrors under discussion would only trivialize or sensationalize them, as the Mexican murder magazines do.
The man is a former resident of Ciudad Juárez, across the Rio Grande from El Paso. Juárez is a city where, according to the film’s closing titles, 5,000 people have been murdered since 2008. It’s here that our anonymous subject worked under the cartels for 20 years, at one point simultaneously employed as an officer of the Chihuahua State Police and as a professional assassin, a double-life that is, to hear him tell it, by no means unusual.
As a rule, this is a world in which those who know don’t speak, and those who speak don’t know. But in El Sicario, Room 164, one who knows speaks—and well. The American journalist Charles Bowden first established contact with the subject, who became the centerpiece of a 2009 article by Bowden in Harper’s; now Bowden has coaxed him back out, before the camera of Italian documentarian Gianfranco Rosi. The film is shot almost entirely inside the title’s “Room 164.” (“Sicario,” incidentally, is slang for “professional killer.”) The subject gives a guided tour of his life, from his induction into “narcotrafficking” as a teenager, through his cartel-sponsored trip to the police academy (“used by the narcos as training grounds”) and his long subsequent career as a hired killer. He compulsively illustrates his life story with a brown Sharpie and a bound notebook and lucidly outlines the ins and outs of trafficking and endemic, system-wide corruption in doodles and abstract diagrams.
When pictures do not suffice, he rises to perform reenactments. One is of a three-day kidnapping-and-torture session carried out, he says, in the same room where the interview is now being shot; playing both parts, he kneels on the floor, as his target once did, for handcuffing. At the end of the film, he begins another reenactment—telling of his evangelical conversion while on the run from his former patrón, kneeling again but now in penance, audible emotion invading a voice that had just been methodical when describing how he ripped flaming blankets off of bodies (“three layers of skin come with it”), lowered victims into a 55-gallon drum of boiling water, and perfected the art of repeatedly choking a target to the brink of death.
Some of the scenarios he relays and the dialogue he remembers (“Are you gonna talk?”) are the stuff of bad gangster movies, but it doesn’t make one question the authenticity of the witness—only proves the degree to which life is pulp. Our subject retains a noticeable streak of pride in his expertise, though falters when discussing the killing of women. Hoping for his own salvation, the converted killer now claims the scales have fallen from his eyes, but his executioner’s hood remains in place to the end—as does the mephitic air of timeless evil that hangs over El Sicario.