Led by outstanding work from Emily Blunt and Benicio del Toro, Sicario is a taut, tightly wound thriller with much more on its mind than attention-getting set pieces. Throughout, Villeneuve excels at approaching the carnage to come from a great, safe distance, and the message seems clear: here is a problem of vast scope and scale, being engaged by huge and complicated forces, and here are its intimate, bloody effects. Sicario paints the bleakest of portraits of a realistic situation, drawn from headlines about Mexican cartels that stack bodies with savage efficiency. Combining relentless action with the story of a woman confronting a corrupted system, it hits with the staggering energy of a visceral kick in the guts – causing a sensory recoil in every scene. DP Roger Deakins delivers a dusty colour palette, and subject by subject reveal that isenaging alongside many aspect shots thatseek to expand this story and allow the viewer to interpret it on their own. At it’s best the lightoing, imagery adn colour come together in an almost artistic display of nail-biting tension.
When we are first introduced to Blunt Deakins includes a lot of the most important elements which are silhouettes, windows practicals which are emitting light, depth and reflections with the focus plain on our protagonist. Atmosphere is very clear in this scene and is a very important element. The way that Blunt’s face is lit in a very Fincher esque approach using a reflection. Her eyelight and skins are visible through reflections to add a moodiness to this exposition scene. Then, when the SWAT team enter the house Kaluya is lit again by the reflections of a window. The second light source has a red curtain over it casting light on the ceiling and later on Blunt’s face acting as a soft red key-light. This is beautifully elegant method of adding atmospheric red light. This is a Shakespearean way of visualising her taking in what could be her firstkill on a raid. This is in the same veign as the Lady Macbeth scene to do with removing blood both metaphorical and rela from one’s hands.
Following this sequence we see Blunt having a reflective moment in a bathroom but her face is obscured by the condensation on the glass. This is a good example of a character having an identity crisis and experiencing a lack of self-recognition. Jumping forward to her recruitment we see a great use of reflections and implied space. She is seen through a window which is reflecting a separate room lit by fluorescents which adds to the industial, bureaucratic feel of the setting. We see the implied lighting and it’s reflection on Blunt. These pure fluorescents add a lot of depth to the room to udnerline the gravity of the scene’s crux.
Moving forward to the introduction of Del Toro we see some very interesting composition. The shot is handheld and focuses on the meeting from the car in a very documentary style of filming. We see Del Toro in the background who is small, motion blurred adn obscured by part of the plane. This elicits a sense of divide and secrecy between these soon to meet characters. Minutes later during the briefing scene the set is not lit by anything but window practicals and reflections. The floor and scene is reflective to edge light the scene with very little direct light. This composition is very dramatic, simple and cinematic. When the lights are turned back on 4300 Kelvin fluorescents banks are used which are warmer in colour to add a gross realistic contrast between the two – an unease. When the camera changes to focus on Blunt we see the repeated shapes of chairs in the backgroudnto draw in the human eye as she delivers some contemplative dialogue as underliend by the MOGA reflections.
During the interogation scene everything in the room is lit by overhead fluorescents with the same yellowish unease to contrast against the greyness of the outdoors as the camera pushes in to the closing door. The interrogated’s body ecludes the light with the three lights from above to give a sense of opression and pressure from above upon his fragile form. The fetahering effect in the back draws the viewers attention to the interrrogated who is seen centre frame. This simple approach is almost always the correct one. The next shot is very meta as the camera adopts a shallower depth of feild to focus on Del Toro’s associate turning off the camera in the background as the interrogation ramps up. Moreover, the blockign and composition of Del Toro’s large form fills the frame to underline his power dynamic. Del Toro is very top lit.
We see a similar tone in the next scene of the mass citizen detention sequence. The industrial setting appears elegant in it’s lighting by practicals dotted throughout the scene. The chemical HAL lighting is allowed to go orange to add a procedural and militaristic feel to the scene. Blunt is left in silhouette during her introduction which is a very strong technique when contrasted against the highly reflective practicals bouncing off the outof focus cars and buses. When we do see her face, the softness of the lightign and the colour ties in with her skin tone to really draw in her character as morally contemplative.
The 4×8 Beat boards with 2K open faces bouncing a bit of white light onto this scene from a high angle to create less reflective light and mroe diffused light. This adds to the tension of the scene as it is revealed that this activity committed by the CIA is not immoral or decrepid as the film’s suspicious tone has lead us to believe. Therefore the audience is allowed to relax in the knowledge that this suspicion will have a darker payoff to come. In the discussion that follows with Blunt’s character Deakins uses a lot more reflective light o nly covering part of her face as we come to realise the seriousness of this situation. The light reflecting from the Beat board maintains the tone and matches the dark subject matter being discussed.
A few scenes later Blunt is taken out by Kaluya to a pub to take her mind off things. The yellow fluorescents lightign the pub sign adn christmas lights with an orange tint lighting the building creates pools of light to add depth to the establishing shot. Deakin captures these lights against a pre-storm sky which adds a sense of impending darkness to this sickly artificial setup. Adding practicals into this twilight scene has amazing results. Then inside the bar we see a purple Kino-flow overhead casting a downlight on Blunt as a hyper-blue Kino-flow front pushes blue to fill out the rest of her face. The pinkish fluorescent with an orange background creates a very memorable and grabby introduction. Moving away from the bar Blunt is lit by a warmer, less harsh light as she sits with Kaluya signifies his comfort to her. The size of the specular highlight creates a nice lighting effect on her skin and face.
Moving to Blunt’s appartment the scene is lit by fluorescent overhead lights with a bank that is reflecting a greenish blue sickly light to the room. In the centre there is a practical pushing down light and on the right there is a warmer lamp light. Essentially there are three background light sources which come together with a silhouette to create a painteresque image of the silhouetted figures. This helps to underline the body language and physical acting during the filming of the scene. Each light seems like an option mcuh like those presumably running through blunts’ characters’ mind. When the scene makes the decision for hershe moves into teh green fluorescent light from the adjacent room which psuhes down on Brolin. This gives him a scary, raccon/skeleton lighting appearance. It feels realistic and adds dynamic range to the grittiness of the scene. We then progress past these three options as she steps out onto the balcony, lit by a small specular industrial scoop orange gross practical. This engages the audience and underlines the new information Blunt receives as the options she previosuly thought she had are now wildly expanded. The lightign unifies the scene in tone and clarifies the geography
Skipping to the same location but at the end of the movie we feel a sense of relief inthe desaturation as the orange light is vanquished by a cleaner daytime lighting. We see blunt through the curtain. The curtain is in focus with ehr form blurred behind it. Showing part of the scene in focus and the other out of focus becomes a motif to foreshadow what is about to happen. When blunt comes through the room she is silhouetted by the singular light source with a strong reflection in the table. The camera pulls back as we wonder what she is lookign at. The reverse shot shows the kitchen’s fluorescent lights backlighting the foreground from above to create an ambient light. The silhouetted form of Del Toro has some powerful reflective lighting partially revealing his face. It is purely reflective with no direct light to underline his shadiness and dark soul we have come to observe following the film’s climax.
Overall, Sicario is a taught thriller full to the brim with moral complexity and brutality only made more vivid by the incredible cinematography by Deakins. His use of reflective lighting, fluorescents and saturation is remarkably atmospheric as it soaks the scene in tension, intrigue and keeps the audience in the unknown for just the correct length of time ot orchestrate their reaction. The raw realism is blisteringly evident as Deakin delivers his most claustrophobic and insightful piece of cinematoggraphy to date.
WRITING WITH IMAGES: THE CINEMATOGRAPHY OF ‘SICARIO’