Crossing the Line

Queering the Bystander Effect in Sicario (2015)

Updated September 2, 2022

While I was a foreign correspondent in Poland, Nepal, India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, I remember walking past dead and dying bodies in the streets of Calcutta. What did I do to help? Nothing. It was too bad, and I carried all these things with me. Sometimes, I would carry an apple to give to a beggar. And I ask myself, was there any differenece between those thirty-eight witnesses and me? Does God count how many people we pass by? I don't know. But I do know I will never walk past a corpse again, thanks to the valuable lesson of [...] Kitty Genovese.

- A. M. Rosenthal, former editor of The New York Times, recanting his portrayal of Genovese's murder (Gallo 2015:160)

    Nobody wants to be a bystander. Since the sensationalized murder of Kitty Genovese, the "bystander effect" has become a prominent topic in psychological research. Its conclusions, extrapolated to environments outside the lab, are used to teach us how to blame the apathy, cowardice, and passivity of the bystander(s) for injustices ranging from harassment to the Holocaust. Shows like What Would You Do? also serve to remind us that if we act on our responsibility to respond to conflicts around us, we will be celebrated and the outcomes will be just. So when we are confronted by films like Sicario (2015), a story of an idealistic FBI agent's quest to defeat a Mexican drug cartel, we are left feeling dissatisfied, frustrated, and even furious. Sicario brutally subverts certain crime/revenge tropes so prevalent in action thrillers, particularly those pertaining to agency, justice, sexuality, and the state. Furthermore, a close analysis of these subversions, drawing from the queer phenomenological thought of Sara Ahmed, demonstrates that Sicario is also a queer feminist film (Ahmed 2006). As a queer phenomenological morality play, Sicario complicates the narrative of the "active witness," instead providing a pessimistic assessment of the viability of ethical lines within heteropatriarchal, militaristic, and imperialist structures. The linkage of queer phenomenology's task of "redirecting our attention toward different objects" with the popular moral imperative to be an "active witness" makes us notice the overlooked perspective of a figure whom I refer to as the queer bystander. The queer bystander's point of view on gendered routes of justice, typically suppressed in otherwise similar action thrillers, is highlighted here to demonstrate the fundamental incompatibility between queer ethics and institutions' coercive and violent reproduction of their own morality.

    Combining phenomenology with queer theory, "bringing what is 'behind' to the front," is not limited to Ahmed's focus on sexual orientation and writing (Ahmed 2006:4). Sicario's queer phenomenological perspective flows from artistic decisions that can be detected in differences between the final version of the film and Taylor Sheridan's earlier screenplay (2022). His screenplay features many monologues, flashbacks, and other lines from Alejandro, a vengeful assassin working with the CIA, that are absent in the film. If they had been left in, then the audience's attention would have been drawn to the stereotypical drama of a man enraged and haunted by the murder of his family. The omission of these moments turns Alejandro into an enigma who speaks relatively rarely, leaving the depths of his mind largely inaccessible to us. As a result, we turn toward a more vocal bystander, Kate, whose inability to fully affect, inhabit, and interact with the world would otherwise relegate her to the background of Alejandro's more active story. Regardless of whether these decisions were deliberately made with the intent of "queering" the film in some way, the changes do open it up to queer interpretation. A film queered in such a way affects us just as queer phenomenological writing does: it creates "a new angle, in part by reading for the angle of the writing, in the 'what' that appears." Queerness has been in the genre all along, silenced within the bystander, but through this new angle we can experience the "horror" of Kate's literal and figurative disorientation, as well as the social conflict that results. But the audience finds no "joy and excitement" in this horror - only indignance and disgust, and at the end of the film we are left stranded, without a lifeline to lead us toward a happier conclusion (Ahmed 2006:4). These unpleasant emotions springing from Kate's perspective turn Sicario's phenomenological turn into an ethical one. It subtly punishes us for rooting for the violence otherwise typical of the genre, and invites us to reflect not only on "the moral of the story," but also on the queer ethics the film proposes.

Everything below this line is draft material

Blunt doesn't do anything because she isn't "supposed" to do anything. Contrary to meeting the typical expectations of a "strong female character" who has a significant role in the plot, she is a spectator in Del Toro's drama. At least, she's "supposed" to be - according to the conventions of typical action revenge movies. She is a bystander, but not simply a bystander. This bystander, who raises constant objections and refuses to remain unknown, is a queer figure. She is "out of place" and continually chooses - even struggles - to make herself further "out of place." And yet Sicario forces us to refocus on Blunt as the queer bystander, aligning ourselves with lines of ethical conduct that we would otherwise miss. We are drawn to Blunt's struggle as a queer bystander struggling to remain queer, so that we do not lose sight of the "ethical lines" overlooked in the gratuitously violent apologia of other revenge films that feature law enforcement, military, espionage, and similar state institutions (which are amalgamated in this "mission").

The ethical codes the different characters follow are bound up in their orientations - ethics in the broadest sense possible, up to and including how individuals govern themselves in social interactions and so on. There is a real sense of strategy being deployed in the conduct of these different ethical lines, such as Brolin pretending to be chill as a cover for his utterly inhumane need for violence.

mod irl: "I’m thinking about Foucault and how ethical rules or intuitions are really ways of strategically governing how one ought to live. “Power is not an institution, and not a structure; neither is it a certain strength we are endowed with; it is the name that one attributes to a complex strategical situation in a particular society. There are forms of oppression and domination which become invisible - the new normal.” It’s about what I do in this particular situation. How does hegemonic masculinity seek to shape me here and now in this localized context or like what are the points of resistance that I can use to uncover and free myself?" (note that Foucault later drops the idea of "strategy" when he reformulates his thesis on power)

also mod irl: "Maybe *Power of the Dog* is coloring everything I watch, but it's really hard to not feel as if *Sicario* is a feminist movie. I mean, we literally have one woman in a sea of horrendously unnecessary masculine violence. Plus the idea that the CIA can control the entire drug trade is like the masculine fantasy par excellance because it literally undermines itself (through continually breeding more violence), yet simultaneously congratulates itself on that failure. I mean, the primary victims are the wife and child of Silvio, the drug kingpin's family, and Emily Blunt. Blunt especially is just like a little trophy wife they can use to justify their big entirely self-constructed game of rampaging violence. Oh, and I didn't even think about the dialectic of weakness that's central to the film. The CIA desire full power, but Del Toro's character arc is about attempting to overcome his inability to defend his family by becoming this machine of destruction. And yet he just re-enacts (essentially) the same scene that he had undergone. Like, I feel the whole "finish your meal" scene and then being unable to wait because it's not enough captures something important there (and don't forget Silvio's arc).

Consider, too, the contrast between Del Toro being motivated by his inability to protect his now-dead family, and Blunt having no partner or children. Other characters, particularly Del Toro, are motivated by ties to family lines and do horrible things as a result. Blunt does not have these ties and cannot be pulled into doing anything comparaable. At the start of the film, it seemed as if the team picked Blunt due to sexual harassment or because she had no family ties (and thus had no one to miss her if she died), but this turns out to be ethically freeing for her, and makes her troublesome for the rest of the team.

The only seemingly functional and intact families are those belonging to the cartel bosses, until they are killed by men like Del Toro, who had family ties but lost them.

The only seemingly functional and intact families are those belonging to the cartel bosses, until they get killed by men like Del Toro, who had family ties but lost them. Del Toro also refers to Blunt as someone who reminds him of the deceased daughter who drives his rage; this doesn't stop him from hurting Blunt for being "insubordinate," which raises questions of how he treated his daughter when she was alive. My early read is that heterosexual family ties pull men into indiscriminate violence against people who disrupt their (power over their) heterosexual family unit, whereas a queer woman's lack of family ties makes her a subversive queer figure who cannot and refuses to relate to this. She is repeatedly dumbfounded by the men's violence and refuses to go along with their actions; the only notable "accomplishment" she gets rewarded for by the team is luring a crooked cop to them by having sex with and nearly being killed by him. Her usefulness to the team depends on her being victimized by violent heterosexual lines, attempting to pull her away from her queer and relatively pacifistic ethical lines.

I forget the exact terminology Ahmed uses, but it's like the family and CIA are "straightening devices."

From the very start of the mission, the CIA repeatedly disorientates Blunt by bringing her to unexpected places she wasn't told about and which are not elaborated to her. So Sicario could be read as a story about the attempted disorientation/reorientation of the bystander, and how she nonetheless tries to remain a queer bystander by not following the CIA's unethical "guide lines" (pun intended).

However, by the end of the film, the plot has become increasingly centered on Del Toro's drama, and this is deliberately related to how Blunt lost her battle. The outlook is quite pessimistic: the queer bystander's ethics are unviable in a militaristic and heteropatriarchal (family-tied) environment. Although she tries to be a bystander, she still feels responsible for perhaps exposing the CIA when she's done, but she never gets to do this because she is still, no matter how much she hates it, part of the CIA's team.

She threatens to walk away from the mission in the early phases of the movie, but by the time the team raids the tunnel, she goes along not because she's interested in their violent goal, but because she wants to see the truth. She is a bystanader who chooses to be an active witness, but as she reorients herself toward that object, she increasingly sheds her ability to walk away. By the end of the film she cannot walk away at all, because she has signed the document approving of the CIA's actions.

So yes, I think Sicario is a queer movie in that it brings our attention to queer figures and keeps us aligned with queer ethical lines, while highlighting the militaristic and heteropatriarchal straightening device in the plot as well.