' ' Cinema Romantico: That One Scene in Sicario

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

That One Scene in Sicario

“There she is. The beast. Juárez.” That’s what DEA Steve Forsing (Jeffrey Caravan) says in “Sicario” (2015) as his black SUV caravan, armed to the hilt, snakes its way across the Mexican border to grab hold of an important so & so and then drag him back to El Paso. Forsing doesn’t really need to say it, of course, except for expository purposes, but then, he is also trying to scare the wits out of newbie Kate Macy (Emily Blunt) sitting in the SUV backseat. He does. He scares the wits out of us too. Of course, by the time we get to this point, we really have no wits left to scare.

If there is a better single cinematic sequence in the twenty-tens than this one, I have yet to see it. I guess you could call it an action sequence, though the gunplay is mostly just limited to the end, and is rapid-fire fast, less about thrills than the surgical precision of those doing the shooting and the damned-if-we-do-damned-if-we-don’t fatalism of those who get shot. But really, it’s a sequence in which mood is paramount, and that mood is dread. You feel this dread for a lot of reasons. You feel it in the way director Denis Villeneuve tilts the camera from the submachine gun being cradled by Benicio del Toro’s engimatic Alejandro to the eyes of Kate. You feel it because of Kate’s eyes, which are the bellwether throughout this scene (and the movie), and so you feel it from the way Villeneuve and his editor Joe Walker keep returning to her eyes at crucial moments. And you also feel it because of the music of Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson.

His music for the scene first appears in the scene’s couple quick triggers. First, after Kate has painfully, reluctantly agreed to go along on this heavily armed jaunt into Juárez, her character is left standing alone, at which point Jóhannsson’s first indelible, per the more expert language of Thomas Goss, “downward-glissandoing low strings from C to A”, evoking the sensation of your stomach dropping, like you really are being pulled down, down into the belly of the beast.


Jóhannsson repeats this downward movement as Alejandro removes and folds up his suit jacket, like a boxer disrobing to go meet his opponent in center ring, making it clear trouble is on the horizon.


Jóhannsson keeps that downward movement going over a series of aerial shot drifting over the Rio Grande and into Mexico. Lord, we’re on our way now, on a roller-coaster called The Beast in those terrifying instants when it’s making its slow climb up the first hill before you plummet.


And as those aerial shots continue, Jóhannsson both intensifies those downward movements while adding a kind of crunching percussion, growing louder and louder until it becomes so cacophonous that it seems to become indistinguishable from the whirring blades of a black helicopter overlooking the scene and vice-versa. And it’s the kind of moment you re-visit after seeing it for the first time and realize that not only was the dread raised to a level where you can hardly stand it so much that you feel like just giving up and crashing through a window like a glued-up Steve McCroskey, but that the dread was raised to such a level without, really, anything dramatic even happening. That? That’s the magic of the movies.

Jóhann Jóhannsson died on Friday. He was 48.



2 comments:

Anonymous said...

This is one of those celebrity passings that I'm going to remember every few years, and hurt as I wonder, "What if?" The cinema is indeed a place less magical without him.

Nick Prigge said...

Amen.