A case study in building tension through editing.
CineFix‘s breakdown of the border scene from Sicario (2015) reveals the rhythmic editing techniques used to create its incredible tension:
The film is told from the perspective of FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt). Kate’s POV (point of view) is established through editing, as each shot of the scene, from tiny details to aerial views, is followed by a shot of Kate. Director Denis Villeneuve and editor Joe Walker, together with Jóhann Jóhannsson‘s amazing score, build tension by using the type of shot / reverse shot used in standard dialogue scenes:
By zooming out then zooming in on the timeline, we can see the structure of the scene and everything leading up to it – all the while, using the shot / reverse shot of Kate’s reaction to the scenes and details (take note of all the little reaction shots of the other characters, we’re learning as Kate is learning).
While the violent climax lasts only a few seconds, the tension is built over the film’s first 30 minutes…
… then ramped over the few minutes as the team gets stuck at the border – exactly the scenario Kate has been warned about repeatedly…
… and finally, the shootout:
“After every moment of violence, we return to Kate for her reaction”:
The scene uses the rule of threes (“introduction, reinforcement, subversion”), together with its own established tempo, to set up our expectation for the finale – Kate herself being targeted:
The buildup and release of tension is essential to making a scene work – and not only in suspenseful thrillers, but across all genres. Here are tips for how to shape your storytelling arc, both within and across scenes:
Our near shot-by-shot study of the cinematography in Sicario: