Film School: The Cinematography of ‘Sicario’ (2015)

Sicario (2015)

A study of how light is used to illustrate dark themes.

This by no means seeks to be a definitive or even an ovjective study – rather, it’s simply a selection of shots, created by cinematographer Roger Deakins and director Denis Villeneuve, which stuck out to me personally, whether for composition, lighting, colour, storytelling, or purely how they made me feel.

In order of appearance (more or less), let’s begin with the briefing scene:

Sicario (2015)

Interestingly, editor Joe Walker holds on this angle for much of this briefing scene, waiting until late in the briefing to cut to any other shots, such as Kate’s reaction, or singles of any of the superiors. Equally interesting is the sound design: the voices of the men are clearer and have more room reverb, while Kate’s voice sounds more muffled and internal – as if the microphone were held at her chest and pointed toward the men, away from her – perhaps to reflect the power dynamic, or to place us inside Kate’s head:

The story is told from the point of view of Kate Macey (Emily Blunt). Shot / reverse-shot sequences are often closer on her face, while other characters’ faces are more obscured or even hidden altogether:

The “establishing” shot of the next briefing room is an extreme close-up of the data projector, or the dispenser of information. The illuminated dust particles are a beautiful detail:

Sicario (2015)

For a story with such dark subject matter, the film is perversely bright. Much of the story takes place in harsh sunlight; superiors “reveal” information, which is bright, while they themselves are shrouded in darkness. Meanwhile, Kate, the “innocent” audience surrogate, is herself often in darkness or underlit:

Notice in that fourth still above, how strategically the blinds are raised to perfectly silhouette the superiors “revealing” information, yet still keeping Kate and Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya) literally in the dark:

Sicario (2015)

We have a whole other post devoted solely to the border crossing scene – so we’ll skip past that here.

This next shot reminded me of how cinematographer Christopher Doyle favours a “dirty frame”, which he utilised so extraordinarily throughout In the Mood for Love (2000). This shot could be seen as a perversion of that… but maybe that’s just me drawing that connection:

Sicario (2015)

It’s also called back to at the end of the film, in a scene with a completely different, but ironically no less life-threatening, intimacy:

Throughout Sicario, certain characters are introduced in two shots: a medium, establishing them and their context, and a close-up or insert of a detail which we’ll need to recall later:

Two upside-down POVs, both at the same slightly dutch angle – right up there with the audience disconnect after the shower scene in Psycho:

Coincidental colour? Doubtful:

Shot / reverse-shot, before vs after:

Deakins’ oners in Sicario seem designed to deliberately disorient the viewer. They begin with a tableau which looks two-dimensional, particularly when in silhouette, but then suddenly giants enter the frame, introducing perspective and dimension for which we, much like Kate, aren’t prepared:

I’ve massacred this beautifully low-key, sinister oner, by increasing contrast and desaturating it, to better show the composition and the murderous menace creeping towards us:

Contrasting with the earlier information briefing or “revealing” scenes, once Kate sees for herself what’s happening and makes the decision to expose it, the lighting shifts from underlit-Kate-vs-backlit-superiors, to equally side-lit, mirroring shot / reverse-shot:

So many striking, even unsettling, shots of cars on highways at night, lit only by headlights and tail lights:

Sicario (2015)

Using colour temperature to distinguish between near-identical, and potentially confusing, shots of the two drivers:

Few shots in Sicario are “flat” or two-dimensional – and those few are painterly in their mise-en-scène:

Sicario (2015)

An effective scene contains an arc which builds, peaks, and releases tension

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… including through its visual language. Viewed in pairs, the shot / reverse-shot, from wide to close-up to wide, shows the build, peak, and release in the final sequence:

Further Viewing

Our notes on CineFix‘s breakdown of the border crossing scene in Sicario, a study of building tension through editing:

A collection of video essays on and interviews with Sicario cinematogapher Roger Deakins: