El Sicario: Room 164 is a one-man monologue of a documentary, 80-odd minutes spent in a crummy motel suite in the company of a guy with a black mesh cloth covering his head and obscuring his identity. A subject really has to have something to say to justify this kind of film treatment—Michael Ruppert’s hypnotic apocalyptic scenarios in Collapse come to mind—and the unnamed focus of Gianfranco Rosi’s feature has plenty. He’s a former “sicario,” a hit man and enforcer for a drug cartel in Ciudad Juárez who once kidnapped and tortured someone in the very room in which he’s being filmed, and he spins out tales of horror, corruption, and redemption with disconcertingly similar intensity.
Rather than fill the screen with photos or re-enactments, Rosi leaves the camera on his subject, very rarely breaking to fade to black or cut to a shot of a cityscape or quiet street. The rest of the time, the sicario is front and center, sitting in an armchair scribbling in a notebook or pacing the room and playing out the parts of both victim and captor as he recounts how a particular job went. The sketching is a haunting touch, our unnamed narrator often illustrating his stories with simple, childish illustrations; summarizing the right and wrong way to kill someone who’s driving, he draws a box-like car and then dots it with bullet holes, and he uses a stick figure covered with a rectangle to accompany an explanation of how covering someone with a blanket, setting it on fire, and then removing it will take off layers of skin. The sicario eventually fled his life of violence and found religion—recounting this episode, he falls to his knees as if back in that church—but both this change of heart and the atrocities that came before it seem to live on in his memory with equal intensity, his narrative not one of regret and repentance but of moving on. It feeds into the film’s compelling mixture of the general and the tangibly specific, its subject coming across as much as a concept as an individual sitting in that anonymous rented room, talking about how “there are no borders for the narcos” and that they own people everywhere. El Sicario: Room 164 is an almost laughably simple, aggressively drab-looking film, but it packs a wallop.