Into hell we descend

A masterful single shot in Denis Villeneuve’s drug war thriller Sicario (2015) serves as both narrative function and a visual metaphor for the whole movie. It is cinematic storytelling of the highest order.

A team of drug enforcement agents have suited and armed up for a night raid on smuggling tunnels. The camera pans with them as they walk purposefully into battle. They are framed as silhouettes against the sunset and descend into the black of the remaining skyline.

The strength of the shot lies in it’s simplicity, working from a palette of three bold colours and almost abstract shapes. The dark blue of the fading daylight at the top of the screen, the red strip of the horizon in the bottom third, and the jet black of the marching soldiers merging with the landscape. There is no dialogue, although Johan Johannson’s minimalist score builds ominously.

The men literally disappear into the ground, as there is nothing to differentiate their outlines from the desert. The covert team are camouflaged by the night as they descend into the tunnels, so efficiently filling the narrative point that Villeneuve and cinematographer Roger Deakins had struggled with practically filming in natural light. Thematically, the shot also describes the descent into murky hell that the central character (and audience) experiences as her eyes are opened to the duplicity, corruption and darkness of the drug war.

The movie was Villeneuve and Deakins’ second collaboration (their next is the long-awaited Blade Runner sequel later this year). They had worked before on Prisoners (2013), where actor Jake Gyllenhaal described Deakins’ luminescent cinematography as making his job a lot easier, because with such great lighting explaining the narrative and characters he didn’t have to do the heavy lifting.

Roger certainly has a gift for night shooting, aided by the low light capabilities of digital cameras such as the Arri Alexa used on Sicario. His work on Skyfall (2013) showcased a fight in silhouette against the neon shimmer of Shanghai skyscrapers, or Craig’s Bond diving into a Scottish lake, lit only by the orange fire of an explosion above him.

In the Coen Brother’s No Country for Old Men (2007), a chase scene is filmed with only the glowing embers of dawn and a truck’s headlights for illumination. Despite a career of stunning imagery he has never won an Oscar for his work, although has been nominated 13 times since 1994 (The Shawshank Redemption being the first, and Sicario the most recent).

As beautiful as his work is, Roger has always maintained his photography should exist in service of the film, and never as style for its own sake. The true artistry of the Sicario shot lies not in its depiction of a pretty sunset, but in the ability to tell a story without words, as simply as possible.

It is cinema in its purest form.

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