You went up the wrong tunnel.
You saw things you shouldn’t have seen.
The best modern war films build suspense by keeping information from the audience. Nowadays, American soldiers rarely face greater numbers or superior weaponry. What they fear most is an ambush. Like The Hurt Locker (2008), Zero Dark Thirty (2012), and American Sniper (2014), Sicario examines the costs of invading a third-world country. Near the border, Kate (Emily Blunt) feels vulnerable at every moment. She knows almost nothing about her enemy, and due to the film’s subjectivity, neither do we. Thus, we never know when or where the hitmen will strike—or what disguise they’ll assume. We only know, or at least feel (thanks to the foreboding soundtrack), that an attack is imminent.
During the film’s numerous aerial shots, we’re given the vantage of a jet, helicopter, or drone. In today’s age of privacy invasion, the POV of a surveillance vehicle can feel quite unnerving. These shots (during which we can hear offscreen rotors or turbines) invoke the might of the US military, yet the perspective hardly makes us feel safe. We know nothing (until the end) about the CIA’s true objectives—or the foreign land we’re being carried over—so these images impose an air of mystery and a sense of menace.
When director Denis Villeneuve visited Juarez, the city felt “the same as some war zones, where you feel a tension coming from the ground, where there’s something that is not right”—a palpable fear you can feel throughout the slums (Fragoso). The entire populace has been oppressed by the Sinaloa cartel. During the Juarez raid, the enemy doesn’t reveal itself until the convoy leaves the city—still, the entire sequence sustains an incredible level of tension. My analysis explores the innovative, nonverbal techniques that contribute to this nail-biting tone.
Figure 1.2 and 1.3 are from the beginning and end of an aerial shot. Note how the five black SUVs are barely visible in the lower-right corner of figure 1.3.
Throughout the raid on Juarez, the aerial shots articulate the tyranny of cartel rule and American imperialism. Once the convoy has entered the foreign land (1.2), a drone pulls us back from the characters, lifting us to a vertiginous height that frames the vast sprawl of the overpopulated city (1.3). Note how the chaos of the slums contrasts the order of the American neighborhood we had floated over at the beginning of the scene (figure 1.4). This abrupt transition creates the nightmarish sensation of being transported to a different world.
By separating us from the characters—minimizing the convoy’s presence in the frame—this objective shot (1.2-1.3) allows us to experience the alienation and vulnerability Kate feels throughout this unknown, hostile environment. She rarely expresses her fears aloud (remaining silent throughout the scene until the attempt on her life), so the film lets the haunting score voice her emotions. To create an unfamiliar tone, composer Jóhann Jóhannsson digitally processed an orchestra (instead of using synthesizers, as is the norm with electronic scores). Here, the erratic trill of hideously distorted woodwinds and strings rises with the camera, permeating the air with a hellish siren.
Smiling at the distant mound of slums, Steve (Jeffrey Donovan) announces, “There she is– the beast. Juarez.” In a film directed by Villeneuve, the landscape becomes a carnivorous lead character (a primal reflection of the other leads). It doesn’t matter what side of the border we’re floating over; the script makes it abundantly clear that this entire region is a war zone. Any one of the houses beneath us (1.4) could be a tomb rigged with explosives. In any of those parked cars (1.5), a hit squad could be waiting for the convoy. And atop any building in the maze-like Juarez (1.1-1.3), a sniper or a lookout might be watching the invaders (a threat that worries the soldiers, who remind each other to “watch the rooftops”). We’re too high up to identity individual threats, and there’s far too much information in the frame to process all at once. Thus, the aerial shots reinforce the insurmountable challenge of fighting a guerrilla army in a foreign land.
Villeneuve calls Sicario a “dark poem” (Heinrich). Its haunting imagery isn’t any less meaningful or sophisticated than its complex, thoroughly researched screenplay. Compare the first (1.7) and final (1.8) scene. The FBI operation and the soccer match are unrelated in plot, but visually, the scenes are connected by a boundary metaphor.
In the opening shot, we see a pocket of suburbia surrounded by desert. We’re in Chandler, Arizona, the text tells us (a suburb of Phoenix 150 miles north of the border). There’s nothing threatening about this scene—until a SWAT team enters the frame.
Note the fence (which, in the news broadcast, can be seen surrounding the neighborhood) that separates the middle-class houses from the southwestern wilderness—a sight that, for many of us, will invoke images of the Mexican-American border. As the camera pans left, we see additional cops surrounding a house on the other side of the fence. Without any dialogue, the disconcerting opening shot informs us—or at least infers—that the cartel’s hitmen (described in the epigraph) have crossed the border and penetrated the heartland.
The film’s final scene—a soccer game next to the border—provides a stark contrast to the opening. The game starts off ordinary enough, though it’s soon interrupted by the sound of a distant firefight. The players and parents freeze, their gaze drawn to the wilderness (as shown in figure 1.8). After a few seconds, the automatic gunfire subsides, and the kids resume the game as if nothing had happened.
North of the border, the death of two officers causes a nationwide, “dramatic outrage” (explains the news reporter). Here, casualties of war—particularly the death of police—occur daily (a fact Alejandro points out to Fausto) and often go unnoticed. It’s a reality the Mexicans have learned to accommodate with silent acceptance.
The fence on the Mexico-US border was built, in part, to promote the American public’s sense of security. In Taylor Sheridan’s revisionist script, the image is associated with vulnerability. The borderland of Sicario is the wild west, so whenever we see the border—as shown on Diaz’s TV (1.9) and outside Silvio’s house (2.0)—we’re reminded of the region’s lawlessness.
Sicario’s poetic style is defined by rhythmic sound and elegant camerawork. Each action scene is a march. Momentum is maintained by the drumbeat of Jóhannsson’s score—which echoes Kate’s heart-rate, growing louder and more erratic throughout each action scene—and by cinematographer Roger Deakins’ methodical tracking shots, which continuously push us toward a threat.
The raid on Juarez opens with a minute-long landscape montage (figures 2.1-2.9), which coincides with the convoy’s drive to the border—but oddly enough, the black SUVs aren’t visible in any of these images. Conventional aerial shots follow the characters during brief, transitional moments of travel, and they’re designed to clarify space. We’re supposed to get a grasp of where the characters are and/or where they’re going. But in Villeneuve’s film, our protagonist rarely knows where she’s going, so the aerials communicate her displacement. “You ever been to Juarez?” Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) asks Kate. “Uh, no, I— We’re going to El Paso, right?” she asks Matt (Josh Brolin), who feigns sleep and replies with an unintelligible mumble. In Sicario, the aerial shots are designed to make us feel lost.
Figures 2.1-2.9 are in chronological order.
Figure 2.1 and 2.2 are from the same shot.
After the squad completes their preparations, we find ourselves flying over an ordinary neighborhood (see figure 1.4). In the second shot of the flight sequence (2.1-2.2), the camera leaves the safety of suburbia and carries us over the desert.
At this point, it’s unclear where we are, but we know we’re flying near a DoD (Department of Defense) helicopter, as we can hear the whirl of a rotor behind us.
Throughout this montage, editor Joe Walker switches between the POV of two helicopters and a drone. This editing technique displays the formidable line-of-sight available to Matt and his team—the perspective of a hunter.
The director told Jóhannsson that he wanted “music that the audience will not hear, but that the audience will feel like a threat coming under their feet, like Jaws” (Lewis). In the 1975 thriller, John Williams’ iconic score warns the audience of each shark attack long before it occurs. Like Williams, Jóhannsson makes heavy use of cellos to play a simplistic, repetitive theme that goes up and down in pitch during a drawn-out crescendo.
Here’s the haunting track “The Beast,” which plays during figures 2.1-2.9.
“It’s amazing when you spread time and create tension,” notes the director. “More so than if you try to compress it.” (Lambie). Villeneuve excels at building a tense calm before the storm. The more ground we cover, the stronger our impression of the region’s profound emptiness (which reflects Kate and Alejandro’s loneliness). The only sign of human life is the occasional patrol car. This is not a place where people were meant to live, so when the camera rises over the hill (2.7) and a vast, overpopulated city comes into view (stretching off into the horizon in figure 2.8), the abrupt transition provides quite a shocking portrayal of poverty in Mexico.
Part of what makes Jaws so terrifying is the fact that we rarely see the shark. Before each attack, we’re given the shark’s POV in an underwater tracking shot. This flight sequence builds tensions in a similar way. We can’t see the helicopters; we can only hear them, and this creates a rather disconcerting effect (accentuated by the ominous stillness of the desert).
In the beginning of the scene, “the throbbing sound of helicopter blades becomes part of the music,” explains Jóhannsson. “That really defines the sound of the film”—a sound that’s “very spectral and very much about texture and rhythm” (Roberts). Complimenting the study pulse of tympani and the echoing roll of a distorted snare drum, the muted sound of the blades adds a propulsive layer to the soundtrack. Demonstrating the limitless potential of electronic music, the film’s combination of distorted instruments and military technology sounds unlike anything we’ve heard in other electronic scores. This visceral yet strangely unfamiliar sound creates an otherworldly tone that allows us to empathize with Kate’s experience in a world completely unknown to her.
Walker refers to the Juarez raid as an “an imperial march”—a disturbing, “brutal look at imperialism” (Hullfish). The landscape montage recalls the opening image of Apocalypse Now (1979), where the distorted, echoing whirl of helicopter blades circles around the audience (blending with the psychedelic music) while the camera tracks along the treeline of the jungle. Much of Sicario shares the Vietnam War film’s dreamlike tone (as demonstrated by the abstract effect of night vision and thermal vision; see figures 4.3-4.8). Whenever we’re approaching a threat, a soft, ominous pulse hypnotizes us, lulling us into a trance similar to the dazed state Kate experiences.
Figures 2.7-2.9 are from the same shot.
In Figure 2.8, we’re abruptly woken from this trance. When we finally see the helicopters—after only hearing them for 60 seconds—their entrance has an incredibly shocking, menacing effect that wouldn’t have been achieved had they been visible in the prior shots. During figures 2.1-2.6, their whirling blades are muffled, barely audible over the low notes of the orchestra. Sicario is an exceptionally quiet film. It has a much lower average volume than most studio films (action or drama), so the rare bursts of violence are always accented. As it swoops into the foreground (2.8), the helicopter’s whirl goes from a whisper to a roar, affecting us with the surprise of prey suddenly overtaken by a beast.
In figures 2.3-2.6, the camera is gliding parallel with the fence on the American side of the border, and it doesn’t change altitude. Complimenting the soundtrack’s crescendo, the final shot of the landscape montage (2.7-2.9) lifts the audience from the ground to the sky at an alarming rate (demonstrating the formidable mobility of a drone), carrying us over the border.
I find it interesting how the audience actually crosses the border before Kate (who reaches the crossing a minute after figure 2.9). Aerial shots typically chronicle the characters’ movement. Here, they separate us from the characters and offer us a nonverbal, purely cinematic experience. Poetry isn’t highly invested in plot—its purpose is to invoke emotions with images. When discussing the importance of screenplays, Villeneuve explains, “The words are there to inspire yourself, but at the end of the day, the image rules” (Douglas).
Even when the characters are standing still, the camera keeps the audience moving forward. Throughout the house of horrors, Deakins shoots the carnage with slow-moving tracking shots. Several bodies are shot two or three times from different angles (as during figures 2.9-3.3), each subsequent shot pulling us closer to their shrink-wrapped faces. Aided by the pulse of the soft tympani, this lyrical repetition creates a dirge-like progression and establishes the dolly shot as a signifier of dread.
Contemporary Hollywood directors (like Christopher Nolan and Paul Greengrass) typically use frantic camerawork to shoot close-quarters action, but Deakins and Villeneauve wanted to avoid “the hand-held pseudo-documenatry style that’s very popular now” (Deakins, qtd. in Cohen). Pioneered by The Bourne Identity (2001) and its sequels, intensified continuity has become the norm—a style featuring whip pans, short takes, rapid focus racking, and (sometimes) shaky cam. Villeneuve’s patient direction contravenes this approach. Each action scene was meticulously storyboarded (Deakins reveals in his interview with Labrecque), each shot akin to a line of a sonnet.
We never actually see anyone die in the tunnel; we only find bodies. In figures 3.4 and 3.5, the camera dollies up to men who had been killed offscreen. The film’s body count is high, but the violence is not particularly gratuitous. The forensic team finds 42 bodies in the walls of Diaz’s house, but only eight of them are shown in medium-shots or close-ups (with a few others partly visible in the background). Each victim appears to have suffered severe head trauma, but the blood-spattered plastic hides these grizzly wounds. Similarly, Alejandro’s thermal vision obfuscates the knife wounds sustained by the bandits—and like the plastic bags, it erases facial features. This effacement motif conveys the disturbing anonymity of the war’s unreported victims.
Deakins effaces the living characters as well. After washing away the blood from the explosion, a disorientated Kate stands motionless before the mirror, steam veiling her face in a way that recalls the macabre images from the prior scene (3.0-3.3).
In the script, Sheridan wanted to represent Kate’s “deconstruction.” He explains that “the entire screenplay was built to destroy her emotionally” (Tangcay). She is constantly victimized, and the toll exacted by trauma can be found on her face (which resembles the face of a “wild beast,” according to Reggie). Figures 3.6-4.3 demonstrate the various ways Deakins deforms Kate’s visage.
Figure 3.8 and 3.9 are from the same shot.
In the screenplay, Sheridan writes, “A vertical line of white light invades us, then grows. [Kate’s] eye disappears in its wake.” The script is filled with vivid images of people vanishing in blinding sunlight or darkness. Here, the expanding ray of white light covers Kate’s face like a pall.
When Kate brings Ted (Jon Bernthal) to her apartment, we’re initially given the perspective of a voyeur—an image foreshadowing her discovery that she’s being watched by men on both sides. During aerial shots or shots from Alejandro’s POV (figures 4.0, 4.1, and 4.4), the perspective of a hunter can invoke angst or dread.
At the end of the film, we find Alejandro spying on her again—only now he’s inside the apartment.
When Kate goes inside the bank, her close-up on the CCTV screen is accompanied by the return of the foreboding music. Sicario (like all the director’s films) often communicates essential information without dialogue. Matt doesn’t tell Kate why she shouldn’t go in the bank; Villeneuve lets the images do the talking. During figure 4.2, the haunting tone clearly suggests that she’s being watched by the cartel, which implies that they’ve infiltrated the bank’s staff, CIA, and/or Phoenix police force.
During the tunnel raid, Deakins uses an infrared lens to capture Alejandro’s POV (as he’s the only character with thermal vision goggles). This uncanny footage will feel especially nerve-racking for audiences familiar with first-person shooters, as the film’s authentic portrayal of thermal vision doesn’t look much more realistic than the graphics of modern videogames. Kate often comments on how the war feels “unreal” and “unbelievable,” so the finale transports us into a nightmare. Covering each face with a pale, spectral mask, the thermal vision transforms every character into an anonymous monster.
Figures 4.5-4.8 are in chronological order.
The predatory tone is accented by a burst of static or a resounding boom (which sounds vaguely like distant artillery fire) that plays whenever the film cuts to a UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) shot (4.5-4.8) or a shot from Alejandro’s perspective. Unlike most war films, Sicario doesn’t rely on on-screen deaths to sustain tension. More often, the violence is aesthetic. Each action scene assaults our senses with the distorted, menacing sounds of military technology (like the muted throb of helicopter blades during the Juarez raid) and other violent, natural sounds (like the barking rottweiler that announces the impending ambush on the border).
Early on, the filmmakers “establish sharp punches” (Walker explains in his interview with Hullfish), exemplified by the sudden explosion of the shed. The punches are also created by sound cues synchronized with the cut, as when a spine-tingling, electronic growl accompanies the first close-up of a corpse (figure 3.1) and when the loud noise of the shower (and the image of blood washing over Kate’s face) interrupts the quiet aftermath of the explosion.
During the second movement of the finale (the descent into the ravine during figures 4.5-4.8), the film “almost sounds like it has a musical soundtrack,” explains Walker, “but actually it doesn’t, not until the last possible moment” once the characters are about to enter the tunnel (Hullfish). Before that, the ambient, warped noises of radio feedback (which include a high-pitched trill and a low-frequency pulse) create the haunting rhythm. Around each corner, an assailant could be waiting for Kate or Alejandro. Even though an actual attack doesn’t occur (until later), we experience the shock of an attack with each accented sound effect and jarring edit (that alternates between dimly lit, granulated night vision and bright, high-res thermal vision).
In the second infrared UAV shot (4.6), the drone has zoomed out to reveal several hundred additional square feet of land. Even if we remember their order in the line (which can be inferred from the military jargon), it’s difficult to identify the main characters. The spectator might fail to find both groups, as there’s a large extent of land to look over (during the shot’s six seconds), and our eyes are drawn to the red target and isolated car. From this height, the soldiers don’t look much different than the patches of white scattered across the ravine. They’re barely brighter than the rocks, and they don’t appear to move much faster.
Sicario forces us to stay alert in order to pick up on the information communicated by the images. When telling Kate and Reggie about Fausto Alarcon, Alejandro explains, “Finding him would be like. . discovering a vaccine.” During aerial shots, Villeneuve conveys the investigators’ struggle to gather intel by hiding the lead characters.
When the characters regroup, the UAV camera zooms back in. Figure 4.7 shows us an area visible in the prior shot (4.6). However, we might not recognize the landscape, as the frame has been flipped. Disrupting continuity, this disorientating edit makes it difficult to grasp the region’s layout and the party’s route.
The inversion of perspective recalls the lyrical pattern established by the border montage. During figures 2.3-2.5 , each cut adjusts altitude and rotates our perspective 90 degrees (a pattern also employed during the flight to El Paso). Matt and Alejandro don’t want Kate to know where the case is headed, so Walker arranges the aerials in a way that conveys her misdirection.
When the UAV operator tells Alejandro that “six remain” (during figure 4.8), a conventional establishing shot would reveal the position of the specified enemies. Here, we can’t find any of them. Only Alejandro and his recent victims are visible.
Mark of the beast
Complimenting the prevalent masks and goggles, shadows are used to convey Kate’s alienation and represent the soldier (on either side) as something she comes to fear: a stranger.
Kate never talks to any soldier other than Matt or Alejandro (except when asking for a cigarette). She knows nothing of her squadmates or their operations—and she’s unable to relate to their carefree personalities—so Villeneuve keeps us at a cold, clinical distance from side characters.
When the commander asks Kevin and Keith (the Marshals in charge of the prisoner exchange) to stand up (5.0), we expect a close-up to introduce these new key players. Instead, the camera stays in the back with Kate, and the dim lighting prevents us from learning their faces.
We never get a clear look at the nameless commander either, even as he explains important information on the Juarez mission. His only close-up is an eerie silhouette that looms over the site of the massacre, foreshadowing the masked federale’s attempt on Kate’s life (4.9). “The most likely spot for a hit will be at the border crossing on the return,” he explains. “Anywhere along the way, anyone not in this room is a potential shooter.”
During the finale, the high-contrast lighting fractures the soldier’s visage with sharp shadows, threatening to envelope him/her in darkness. In figure 5.2, note how the shadow of Alejandro’s assault rifle cuts off the lower half of his face.
We see the same effect inside Diaz’s car. Note how the shadow covering Alejandro’s mouth resembles the black bandanna worn by the federales in Juarez.
Only a sliver of Diaz’s face is lit, demonstrating how he, like Alejandro, has been consumed by darkness.
When the first SEAL enters the tunnel and tip-toes up to the camera, his figure melts into the void until only his arm and knife are visible. It’s as if he’s being slowly devoured by the mouth of the cave.
When Kate lashes out at Matt, he throws her against the rocks and pushes her into the shadows. Note how the blackness covers her mouth like a bandanna—a symbol of the outlaw he wants her to become.
Once he releases her, Matt sinks back into the darkness, yet Kate clings to the light.
Figures 5.8-6.0 are from the same shot.
This iconic tracking shot lasts 45 seconds and contains no discernible dialogue. “I’m not someone who loves dialogue – I am someone that loves movement,” explain the director. “Action, if it’s well done, can be very poetic and meaningful” (Douglas).
At first, we can hear the soldiers’ muffled radio chatter, crunching footsteps, and clinking gear, but these sounds quickly fade once they start walking away from the camera. For the second half of the shot, all we hear is non-diegetic sound: the soft, underlying drumbeat, the repetitive, driving melody of the cellos, and the erratic wails of the muted trumpet.
Here’s the ominous track “Night Vision.” The last 45 seconds of the march plays during figure 5.8-6.0.
Kate is alone in this surreptitious land of wolves. To articulate her isolation, Villeneuve occasionally separates us from the characters with objective shots that emphasize the eerie stillness of the desert (as during figures 2.1-2.9). In a Michael Bay movie, we’d expect a transitional sunset image to last only a few seconds. Here, Walker waits for the silhouettes to sink below the ridge before cutting. “Normally people put in a lot of cuts to build up tension,” explains Deakins, “but I think for me it works the other way. The tension sometimes comes in holding a shot” (Singer). The suspense doesn’t peak until after the last soldier has vanished.
Discussing his penchant for long takes, Walker explains:
The reason I think those shots are tense are because you’ve already established early on in the film that surprises can happen, jolts are possible. So for example Kate walks out of the tract house and BANG, big explosion, you’re not expecting that. She steps out of the house in a daze and witnesses a badly injured victim crawling towards her and then BANG, big jolt to Kate in the shower with an extremely loud, hard cut… Having established that the film can deliver shocks and surprises, holding on to a shot for a long time can be super uncomfortable. (Hullfish)
For the final three, nerve-wracking seconds of the sunset image (6.0), we can’t find any sign of life across the vacuous, black landscape. It’s as if the soldiers have been swallowed by the desert—and we have no idea what lurks in the belly of the beast.