Sicario is a strange movie. Never before has such a badly written film been so good. Sicario spends time creating set-ups in its story that are then unsatisfyingly paid off or never paid off at all. It spends a tremendous amount of time exploring unimportant characters, which in turn leaves the important ones unexamined and empty. This means that we fail to connect with characters that should have us emotionally hooked. The film has a T.V. show quality to it. It needs more time to truly show its characters to us. Ninety minutes is just not enough time. So what makes this film worth watching? Well, the simple reason is to watch one of the best cinematographers in the business at work. The work of Roger Deakins in this film is sublime. He rescues the script and has our eyes glued on to the screen, simply because of his ability to build visual tension. The images in this film are beautifully composed, but that’s just part of the story. Deakins writes with the camera in a way that keeps us constantly intrigued but also tells the story to us visually.
So how does Deakins do this? It’s simple; he creates visual tension by never giving us enough information about the picture. He has a tendency, in all his work, to constantly go from wide shot to close-up and vice-versa, never quite showing us the medium shot that we want to see; the medium that would reveal the story to us. Sicario opens with the details of a house that we know nothing about. It is intercut with extremely long shots of the neighbourhood where the house is located and close-ups of officers in a car. He never quite tells us the whole story until the climax of the scene. The best example of this is in No Country for Old Men. Here, Deakins, working with the Coen brothers has us at the edge of our seats during the simplest of scenes: when Tommy Lee Jones’ character visits the motel. Here we watch the close-up of the blown out lock for a very long time. This signifies to our character that the killer was here. Then we see the actual killer (Javier Bardem), partially, and in dim light, only hinting to us that he is there. We only see half his face, and the barrel of his gun. Only then do we get to see the scene play out, knowing all the time that the killer has been right there. This sort of use of information keeps us engaged in a fairly minimal scene for a very long time. Deakins doesn’t need action to keep us engaged, he needs information. The reason why Sicario is so gripping is because of the way Deakins reveals the information to us visually.
Another aspect of Roger Deakins work is his visual symbolism. There is an absolutely brilliant scene in Sicario in which the children of the city play a soccer match. Behind them we see their city, one we have seen many times before as a place of crime and murder. Here, Deakins constantly reminds us of the grim future of these kids as they try to live a normal life. Another great example of this can be seen in Jarhead. Deakins sets up one of the most stunning photographs in any film. A soldier stands in the rain, which is oil instead of water. The oil wells in the background provide the dark clouds of the scene. Deakins cleverly reminds us of the real reason behind the presence of that soldier in that region. With images like this Deakins is able to portray the main theme of the movie all in one single photo.
There are many other aspects of why Roger Deakins’ work is so mind-blowing, with these working as mere examples. He is undoubtedly one of the best Cinematographers in the business right now. His work on Sicario rescues the film from a less than par script making it a visual stunner. It is such a pleasure to be able to study a legend as he continues to create marvelous work.
By Amir Karimi
Sicario: (2015) Directed by Denis Villeneuve, starring Benicio Del Toro, Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin.