"To follow news of the Mexican cartel wars is to perpetually learn anew of the worst thing you have ever heard of," writes Nick Pinkerton in the Voice: "the village-size mass graves, the revenge-killings on entire families. This is the silent wreckage; El Sicario, Room 164 introduces us to the personnel…. The film's sparse, almost banal presentation is a virtue, for to boldface the horrors under discussion would only trivialize or sensationalize them, as the Mexican murder magazines do."
As Max Goldberg wrote here in the Notebook back in February, in the documentary beginning its one-week run at New York's Film Forum today, "a former assassin describes his experiences working and killing for the Mexican narco-state in a bland motel room on the US side of the border — bland except for the extraordinary charge that comes of the sicario's claim that he once tortured a man in this very same room. There are at least three frames that count in El Sicario, Room 164: Gianfranco Rosi's unblinking camera and the motel room, both of which suppress context, and the notebook with which the sicario diagrams and occasionally illustrates his firsthand knowledge of the cartel's systematic brutality. The fact that he is hooded throughout, withholding his identity and what would otherwise be the El Sicario, Room 164's key expressive surface, only heightens the tension between his emphatic storyboarding and the film's non-illustrative method."
"Rosi never embellishes," adds Keith Uhlich in Time Out New York: "it's enough to hear the assassin describe the methods of torture he employed — like a boiling vat of water used to cook off conscious victims' body parts — to form a horrifying picture of a man pushed to depraved extremes. There is no comfort to be had, not even when the killer powerfully tells of the religious conversion that set him on the right, but no less dangerous, path. (The cartel now has a $250,000 price on his head.) Despite his repentance, you sense that this lost soul will be confessing his sins for all eternity."
"Inspired by a 2009 article in Harper's Magazine, El Sicario, Room 164 is a pointless unburdening of a gangster's overflowing conscience," finds Jeannette Catsoulis in the New York Times. "Like 8 Murders a Day, Charlie Minn's thought-provoking documentary earlier this year, it is finally less compelling for its random details of multiple brutalities than for its chilling portrait of a country irretrievably rotting from within."
"The persistent idea that we're being presented with an unreliable narrator, that there's no way of knowing how much of this anonymous man's story is true, how much of it is high-flown bragging, only makes El Sicario more interesting," argues Jesse Cataldo in Slant. "He seems at least slightly affected by Saint Augustine's syndrome, the condition by which former sinners are driven to inflate their sins to epic proportions, so that their conversions seem all the more miraculous, simultaneously heaping notoriety on themselves and glory upon God. But it's impossible to know the truth, and the sicario's eventual unknowability only accentuates the banally terrifying effect of the monster behind the mask."