Agony and Apostasy: The Slow Burn of Sicario

College, film theory, day 1: non-diegetic sound can serve as an aural cue that helps establish the audience’s emotional response to the visual. Bernard Herrmann’s orchestra signals the macabre; Ennio Morricone controls the suspense of a desert stand-off; strains of “The Death March” can elicit fear, excitement, energy.

In this vein, composer Jóhann Jóhannsson turns up the dial to 11 on Denis Villeneuve’s drug cartel thriller-drama Sicario. Insistent drums pound from near and far, as though lined along the road to hell itself. Cellos and basses crisscross each other, mimicking the racketing tension of convoy scenes. A howling horn section blasts across the white roofs of Juarez, throbbing as FBI agents descend into the Arizona sunset. The score creates vibration that’s as palpable as the rapidly shredding nerves of protagonist Kate Macer (a near-flawless Emily Blunt). When the score gnashes its teeth—heavy bass, rising and falling—a vein in her forehead pulsates. Her eyes are steady but convey dismay that cannot be allayed, horror that cannot be redeemed.

I was a teenager when Blunt won a Golden Globe for Gideon’s Daughter. She stole outright The Devil Wears Prada, and I admired her in The Young Victoria. In Sicario she’s an unflinching FBI tactical agent who discovers over 40 mutilated, plastic-wrapped bodies in the walls of a suburban home in Arizona. Matt Graver, a Defense Department adviser, recruits her for a special op against drug cartel boss Manuel Diaz. Josh Brolin is at his shit-eating-grin-best as Graver, whose blithe lies about the op’s true objective pile ever higher. Benicio del Toro turns in his finest work as accompanying operative Alejandro, a minimalist of personality and purpose.

Macer’s attempts to follow protocol, build a legal case against the cartel, argue against rapid-fire executions in the midst of U.S.-Mexico border traffic are treated like so much white noise. Blunt wrangles each scene like a taut wire bearing a heavy load, giving way as the load upends her ethics. Joe Welker’s editing crafts an internal breakdown that parallels the questionable successes of each op. Action-heavy set-pieces, something of a specialty of Villeneuve’s, do not detract from the story’s intensifying psychological/literal body count.

During the film’s fourth act the team silently approaches a tunnel along the border. Cut to wide shot: heads slowly bobbing lower into the dark desert brush. The final streaks of the sunset hang above them, the last ribbon of light as the POV switches to night-vision. I was reminded briefly of ‘No Country for Old Men’, and the credits told me why: Roger Deakins. He handles with particular deftness the video game-esque black-and-white optics of the final act, a task I do not believe he has performed before. Exemplary work, but I’d expect nothing less.

This year’s Oscar-aspiring actresses, to you I say this: Emily Blunt set the bar. Ball’s in your court.

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