Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario is a one of 2015’s best films. Artfully made and intense from start to finish, the drug war-themed thriller (starring Emily Blunt and Bencio del Toro) focuses on CIA operatives hunting down a high-ranking cartel chief whose brutal tactics have left a trail of victims via bomb, acid bath, dismemberment and beheading.

Sicario reminded me of Kathryn Bigelow’s controversial 2012 film Zero Dark Thirty, which chronicles the covert hunt for Osama bin Laden. Both films are about retributive justice and the CIA’s efforts to end the reign of bloodshed of a terrorist tyrant. Both films end with a violent climax that is simultaneously cathartic and conflicting: cathartic because an evil villain is dispatched in a fittingly violent manner, but conflicting because we aren’t quite sure we should feel so good about it.

These sorts of “conflicted catharsis” endings are common in films about revenge and justice. Quentin Tarantino includes denouements of this sort in nearly all of his films, often featuring some sort of previously disenfranchised victim exerting bloody vengeance on their abusive and powerful victimizer. Kill Bill and Death Proof show this in terms of women exacting vicious revenge on abusive males. Django Unchained shows this in terms of a black slave (Jamie Foxx) cathartically killing a comically evil slave owner (Leonardo DiCaprio). Inglourious Basterds gives Jews the weapons to inflict disturbingly mortal wounds on Nazis via knife, gun, explosive, and baseball bat.

The climactic scene of Inglourious Basterds is perhaps the ultimate in conflicted catharsis. Inside a Parisian theater filled with Nazis and Adolf Hitler himself, Brad Pitt and his band of Jewish ...

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