Film Review: El Sicario, Room 164

A cross between a feature-length home movie and instant avant-garde classic, <i>El Sicario, Room 164 </i>records a man in a room (though not just any man) talking for 80 charged minutes.

You don’t see the violence per se, but this documentary about a Mexican drug cartel hit man (a.k.a. “El Sicario”) goes way beyond the usual souped-up Hollywood caricatures of such, merely by recording the man’s testimony of past events. It is hard to imagine anyone outside the art-house set flocking to appreciate the film’s pared-down, minimalist approach, yet once viewers get in front of the screen, they won’t be moving away anytime soon.

El Sicario, Room 164 is based on a 2009 Harper’s magazine article by journalist Charles Bowden, who first interviewed the titular figure, a Ciudad Juarez hit man on the run from the law (who still today has a bounty on his head). When the article first appeared, Italian-born filmmaker Gianfranco Rosi (Below Sea Level) was so taken with it, he contacted Bowden and established enough of a rapport with “El Sicario” to convince him to talk for the first time in front of a camera.

Rosi and his crew set up the interview in a nondescript motel room located on the U.S./Mexican border and—with the condition he be disguised with a black hood—the hit man confessed to a 20-year career of brutal and deadly crimes. Throughout the film, El Sicario speaks through his dark mesh covering, mostly while seated, and depicts some of his experiences by drawing free-style on a canvas pad.

Simple, even dull, as it sounds, El Sicario, Room 164 is anything but: The contents of the transcript alone would be enough to rivet one’s attention, but the  personality of the man himself is also a major factor in the film’s success. (Clearly, El Sicario used his wiles, intellect and even charm to perform some of the less deadly acts of his business.) Just the same, our “protagonist” is also a bit ordinary at times (the banality of evil, perhaps?).

Despite the occasional nagging feeling that we are witnessing a great piece of performance art, a stunt by a filmmaker and a terrific actor (this is especially the case in the over-the-top last reel when he speaks of a religious conversion), the narrative rings authentically true enough for us to question not the primary subject of the film (or the “journalistic” coup by Rosi and Bowden), but the corrupt way Mexican (and other societies) operate by allowing an uneasy alliance between drug cartels and the police, including the governments themselves, all in a shameful quest for illegal profits. (To wit, El Sicario was on the police force when he started his life of contracted torture and murder.) In the end, the filmmakers seem to be saying, it doesn’t really matter if El Sicario represents a true person as long as he represents the Truth.

Some more astute critics have already compared El Sicario, Room 164 with the work of French director Claude Lanzmann’s Holocaust documentaries, proving that a static interview in a confined space has the potential to be just as cinematic as any high-tech Hollywood product. There could be no higher praise than that.