It’s like getting cornered in an expat bar by a blowhard looking for company, except it’s a creepy motel room, and the man is a career killer. Gianfranco Rosi’s extraordinary one-man documentary stares long and hard at the practiced but no less terrifying monologues of a Mexican hit man, originally the subject of a 2009 Harper’s Magazine article and then a book by inveterate border commentator Charles Bowden.
In a macabre take on the talking-head format, the setup is audaciously simple: in a bare hotel room, a masked, heavy-set man talks and, in a master touch, illustrates his points on a sketchpad. He recounts how he became a killer for a drug cartel and details techniques of capture, murder, torture, and more—making the viewer feel like a truly captive audience. The sequences are buffered by shots of plain-looking unidentified buildings (possibly the safehouses in which cartel victims were disposed of and, as El Sicario recounts, permanently kept out of police view).
Among other things Rosi’s film is a grotesque window on the ravages of Mexico’s drug war and the country’s extreme social inequities, and the memoirs of an individual we might prefer not to know about. Rosi’s 2008 doc Below Sea Level was a moving look at a squatter town in the California desert, but the true precursor is his 1993 short Boatman, about a bargeman on the River Ganges, where the living and dead meet.