Darkness dissolving into darkness. When describing the theme of the tense drug-thriller Sicario (2015) that sentence might cover it. People with questionable morale fighting a war devoid of morale end up covered in darkness. Though much of the film is bathed in the scorching hot sun of Mexican skies, it ends up being one of the bleakest movies coming out of Hollywood in 2015.
The film explores America’s seemingly futile war on the drugs industry through the eyes of the relatively innocent character of Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) who gets to tag along with the DEA during a mission to capture a drug lord in Mexico. She doesn’t exactly start out as a wide-eyed innocent FBI agent, but as the movie develops she gets confronted more and more with the harsh realities of the drugs war, upsetting her beliefs and morals.
And yet, the film doesn’t suggest a better option of tackling the issue than is presented by its ambiguous characters. In that sense Sicario doesn’t exactly present a new viewpoint. Another major film about the war on drugs, Traffic (1999) by Stephen Soderbergh, comes to roughly similar conclusions; it’s a dirty war and if there is any hope for the United States to win at all, it won’t be through an honest and glorious fight. It’s either surrender, or being prepared to get dirty. Or so these movies tend to suggest.
A thriller at its core
But one thing that separates Sicario from many other drug films, is that it is framed as a thriller, more than a drama. And it’s one of the most nail-biting thrillers to come out of Hollywood in years. The movie is filled with scenes so tense and downright claustrophobic it is at times straining to watch. Our minds are unwilling to rest and take the film in as it bombards all our senses with dread.
One spectacular scene, set around the border between the US and Mexico flips the relative sense of safety of being stuck in a traffic jam on its head. Music, editing and amazing camerawork by master cinematographer Roger Deakins all converge in this moment. We switch from silent aerial shots looking down on the traffic, to in-car moments where we stare trough windows and windshields as we try to identify suspect cars in the distance and the whole thing is glued together with an amazing soundtrack of drone-like sounds which create a throbbing pulse beneath the visuals.The scene actually comes pretty early in the movie and I honestly wondered if this kind of tension could be topped further on in the movie.
After a relatively gentle middle part I believed this might have been the case as the movie shifts its focus more on character building and the politics behind the action. But then comes a final act where our characters plan to seize a drug-tunnel crossing the border at night. What follows is as stressful a stretch of film I’ve seen.
Using a combination of night-vision (the grainy green type), thermal vision (the inverted black and white type) and actual vision (the black-against blackness type) Roger Deakins visualizes the raid almost as a surreal videogame, without it ever feeling less than real.
The whole sequence is amazing as we slowly descend into the tunnels, becoming more and more claustrophobic and quietly scary, until gunfire erupts and chaos ensues.
The perfect shot in this film, my favorite by far, is at the start of this scene. Right before the sunlight disappears from the sky and our cast of characters begin their march towards the tunnel. It is here that we still see the world through normal eyes, before night-vision sets in. But there already isn’t much to see. The earth, the people, the details, all are only visible as abstract black shapes. The only contrast comes from the red and blue sky in the background.
As the squad moves through the frame, the camera pans with them until it stops with the sunset dead-center in the frame. The characters continue to walk and apparently descend down a hill of sorts. As the bottom part of the frame is pure black, it’s difficult to precisely determine the action. Which is awesome. Because it abstracts the image to the point that it looks like the figures are descending into a sort of void.
It’s these kinds of images that resonate most strongly with me. Images that look abstract, even surreal, yet are grounded in reality. You’ve got t find something that is tangent and real, and then capture it to transform it into something unreal.
Of course; the image also works as a visual metaphor, as described in my opening sentence. It’s darkness, the silhouettes of men, dissolving into darkness, the un-lit environment. Beyond the darkness, through the tunnel, is where our main character Kate stumbles upon an unsettling discovery which makes her question everything she is working towards. So in that sense, the shot is foreboding. A sign that even Kate will be forced into the darkness before the end.
When a shot combines this surreal quality with a profound metaphorical undercurrent, it’s a winner to me. And in company of dozens of other great shots in Sicario, this one still stands out as the most accomplished and memorable. Were I to write up a list of my favorite shots of 2015, this one would definitely be on that list.