El Sicario, Room 164 opens with establishing shots inside a sterile, franchise-looking hotel room. Director Gianfranco Rosi’s low-grade digital camera stops on the hairdryer, the headboard, the TV stand, before introducing the titular subject, an ex-hitman for a Mexican drug cartel, standing in front of the hotel bathroom mirror adjusting the black shroud that he’ll wear over his head for the duration of the film. For the next 80 minutes, El Sicario sits in that room and narrates his life story, and by way of it the anatomy of the narco-state of Chihuahua, Mexico.
With the exception of a few additional sets of establishing shots of quiet Ciudad Juárez streets and anonymous houses, and one that follows a police car—short intermissions from the oppressive narrative—the entire documentary takes place in this room. The setup mimics the first time the hitman told this story, when he was interviewed by Charles Bowden for Bowden’s book on Juárez, Murder City. Using a large sketch pad, a brown sharpie, and a knack for theatrical and physical storytelling, El Sicario outlines his early life as a poor teen lured away from his family with the promise of designer sneakers, cars, and women. What started as a simple position, driving drugs over the Mexico-Texas border, graduated into an education with the state police academy (all but directed by the cartels as a training ground for future killers and dirty cops). From there, he could lead a wealthy, privileged life with impunity, as long as he followed instructions and kept full obedience to the patrón.
This trajectory, of course, resembles the initiation processes in most of the mafias and criminal rackets through history (along with more than a few ostensibly legitimate job paths). In El Sicario, however, everything described—institutionally ignored kidnappings, gang-rapes, mass burials, torture, bribery—is currently happening in one form or another all the time, all over Mexico. Hearing and seeing the details makes understanding this structure newly horrifying. The fluency of his speech and the straightforwardness of his hand-drawn diagrams and physical, procedural recreations—of how to perfectly shoot through the keyhole of a car, how long to keep a victim’s head submerged in a bathtub without killing them, or a torture method that involves placing flaming blankets on victims’s naked bodies and then removing them, ripping off layers of skin in the process—is oddly pedagogical. There is no choice but to get it.
Save a few title cards, the film proceeds without the usual documentary embellishments—no time-lapse, no voice over, no score—and since the subject remains hooded throughout, not much of an attempt at demonstrating veracity. One traditional structural element comes through in the killer’s story of his realization, escape, and come-to-God moment in an evangelical mega-church, which does play out a kind of three-act structure. And, indeed, it adds a peak and resolution to the tableau of non-linear violence which makes up the bulk of the interview. This part, however, is one of quite a few things that American film critics have utterly failed to understand about the documentary—that it is not about a person or a “character.” It is not, as Jeannette Catsoulis in the Times writes, an “unburdening of a gangster’s overflowing conscience.” The autobiography is a surrogate for demonstrating a system of illegal violence, which mimics and works within a system of legitimacy, and continues to grow and worsen every day. Its function in the film is not to tie the narrative together or complicate the character. Rather, it explains the only way in which this person could have made it out of the organization, and into this room, without being killed or killing himself, another body on top of the pile.