Kings of the Underworld: Denis Villeneuve, Benicio Del Toro and Emily Blunt on Sicario

“Directing is more the art of listening than of being a dictator,” says Denis Villeneuve, articulating a philosophy that has generated an increasingly complex and provocative body of work.

His latest film, Sicario, is his most haunting and lyrical to date, an action movie for adults that combines the hypnotic power of a dark fairy tale with a setting and situations steeped in harsh social realism. Emily Blunt plays Kate Macer, an Arizona FBI agent whose discovery of a house full of corpses leads her into a partnership with a pair of covert operatives fighting the drug war. Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) is a foreign operative whose origins, methods, and intentions are painfully unclear to the idealistic Kate; American agent Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) is just as shadowy, a good-humored but evasive figure with possible CIA connections. As Alejandro and Matt drag Kate deeper and deeper into their world, its moral lines become increasingly untenable and unclear—so that by the film’s chilling final scenes, Kate is no longer sure of what she believes in, or how to continue the work to which she has dedicated her life.

French-Canadian filmmaker Villeneuve had already directed several award-winning fiction and documentary films when he became an international sensation with 2010’s Incendies. That film, a searing drama about siblings discovering the truth of their lineage in the wake of their mother’s death, merged a dramatist’s taste for moral ambiguity and ambivalence with a documentarian’s attention to journalistic detail. Villeneuve would employ these strengths to equally strong effect in his Hollywood studio debut, the harrowing child abduction thriller Prisoners (2013) with Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal. His follow-up film, Enemy (released in 2014, but actually shot before Prisoners), was more interior, a character study of a man (Gyllenhaal again) tormented by the discovery of his own double. It presented another side of Villeneuve’s directorial personality, returning to the intimacy of earlier Canadian pictures like Maelstrom (2000), just as Prisoners was of a piece with more realistic studies of cycles of violence like Incendies and Polytechnique (2009).

Alejandro uses his insider-outsider status in the drug wars, extracting information from Mexican civilians. Credit: Photograph by Richard Foreman

Alejandro uses his insider-outsider status in the drug wars, extracting information from Mexican civilians.

Sicario combines the allegorical psychological games of Villeneuve’s more intimate, emotional dramas with the larger scale of his thrillers. It’s also the sharpest crystallization yet of the director’s belief in the gray areas between idealism and realism—in American politics, in the social realities of cartel rule, in personal choice. When he read the screenplay, written by the actor, Taylor Sheridan, best known for his role on Sons of Anarchy, he found it fit perfectly in line with his existing sensibilities, while also offering room for something new.

“I’d been interested in the border between the United States and Mexico for a while,” Villeneuve says. “As a filmmaker you want to try different things, different genres. I had never done a film with so many elaborate action sequences, and it’s something I was really excited about.”

Indeed, Sicario is packed with stunning set pieces, from the small-scale (a riveting hand-to-hand fight, in a cramped apartment, between Macer and a cop played by Jon Bernthal) to much larger exercises in choreography, such as a climactic ambush scene set entirely in a pitch-black tunnel, seen through the characters’ night vision goggles.

Acting Tough

Like Villeneuve, Benicio Del Toro was attracted to the screenplay’s potential for elevated genre filmmaking, the mystery element surrounding its black-ops characters. “Aside from the opportunity to work with Denis and with Emily again—we did The Wolfman together—I liked the fact that the movie played like a film noir,” the actor explains. “There have been so many films dealing with the drug wars, but that noir element made this one stand out.”

Alejandro is the latest in a long line of Del Toro characters who straddle that same idealism-realism border that calls to Villeneuve. From his Oscar-winning performance as a Mexican cop fighting the drug war in Traffic, to his collaboration with that film’s director, Steven Soderbergh, on Che, Del Toro has always been attracted to what he calls “tainted heroes.” Indeed, the actor has done numerous films touching on the drug wars, including Oliver Stone’s Savages and the more recent Escobar: Paradise Lost. It’s a world he knows, and that familiarity inflects how he plays his character.

“I know a few DEA agents and a couple of ex-LAPD officers that I’ve worked with before, and I asked them questions about the drug war. If I learned something interesting, I would bring it up to Denis, and often it would make its way into the story and the character.”

Emily Blunt, returning to an action-oriented role after last year’s blockbuster hit Edge of Tomorrow, was similarly inspired by real-life sources with her character, Kate. “I like to really dive into research,” she says. “On this film, the most helpful thing was speaking with female FBI agents who told me in great detail how the job affects their lives. I learned that many of the women who do this job are quite shy and lonely—and yet they have so much strength. That helped me get a sense of who Macer was before the story begins, because it isn’t there in the script.”

Sicario does pack a lot into a little. “The movie only takes place over three days, and the characters are given very little backstory—I don’t think Josh’s character has any!”

Blunt’s homework wasn’t all psychological. The film opens with an FBI raid on a house believed to contain kidnap victims, and Blunt is called upon to look convincing leading an entire SWAT team of armed men. “In those sorts of scenes, you’re working with enormous, gorilla-like men who can knock down a door with the flick of a finger, so the trick is to look competent in that sort of world,” she says. “SWAT team choreography is like a dance—it’s absolutely meticulous, quiet, systematic, and lethal. They don’t just barge in and kick down doors. Preparing for it was like learning a specific dance routine. It took about three days to learn; most of the guys doing it actually are FBI agents, and they gave me a lot of good pointers on how to walk and move and avoid shooting your partner standing in front of you.”

Caption: Emily Blunt as the in-over-her-head FBI agent Kate Macer

Team FBI: (R-L) Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), Dave Jennings (Victor Garber), Phil Coopers (Hank Rogerson) and Reggie Wayne (Daniel Kaluuya)

For all that, Blunt found the taciturn, interior Kate Macer—whose femininity clashes, sometimes unproductively, with her occupation—to be a difficult person to inhabit. “The character’s emotions are so submerged. She’s an idealistic person thrust into an incoherent world that’s essentially lawless and totally outside of her comfort zone. “It was a tricky balance to find her intrigue with that way of working and also her disgust with that way of working. Denis and I both felt very strongly that this was a female cop in a world where she would, inevitably, get overpowered. It was a fine line, but Denis encouraged me to find the character vulnerable without compromising the sense of her skill and competence.”

Blunt’s scenes with Del Toro are particularly effective in the way that they convey an unspoken connection without deteriorating into romantic clichés. Both characters are bonded by a certain sense of purpose, though Kate’s is less compromised: She’s a law-and-order FBI agent whose clarity of intention is undermined over the course of the film. Alejandro is less “moral” in a conventional sense—and flits unsettlingly between audience sympathy and aversion throughout the movie—but never loses sight of his single-minded pursuit to avenge an old wound.

The ambiguity of their relationship was both by design and a byproduct of Del Toro’s quiet charisma. “Benicio has a mystique about him,” Blunt says. “He doesn’t really give much away, so you’re always left guessing—not just on screen, but also working with him. There’s something shape-shifting about the way he plays a scene. He and I work quite similarly in that we enjoy not spelling things out.”

Del Toro agrees. “We all have pasts, but we don’t go around explaining them to everybody,” he says. “In the original script there was a scene early on that told the audience more about my character. I was glad we took it out, because now all of the characters and behavior are essentially seen through Macer’s point of view.”

What little backstory does exist serves to inform Alejandro’s complicated morality, as many of his actions could be interpreted as heroic or criminal. “The line my character walks between those ideas is what I grabbed onto,” says Del Toro. “Denis and I were both committed to seeing how far we could go with that ambivalence.”

The City of the Dead Comes to Life

Everyone involved with Sicario was obsessed with getting the world they were portraying right, with a minimum of editorializing. Del Toro says, “I was concerned that the movie not condescend to one side of the border over another—that it be fair and honest to the situation.” Villeneuve had similar concerns: “My goal was to try to be as honest as possible in my depiction of Mexico.”

To that end, Villeneuve visited Juarez, a key setting in Sicario where much of the film’s violent action takes place, and soaked up the atmosphere—though security issues prevented him from actually shooting there. Like the merciless, death-riddled city depicted in Sicario—populated with spies, assassins and corpses hanging in plain air under freeways—Juarez is ruled by the drug cartels whose turf wars often lead to tragic consequences for anyone in the vicinity.

“I scouted in Juarez and got a great sense of the architecture and light, but it was far too dangerous to bring a film crew there,” Villeneuve says. Birds-eye shots of the city were acquired in a helicopter, but most of the film’s segments set in Juarez were shot in El Paso, Texas, Albuquerque, New Mexico and other places in Mexico, including Veracruz. Production designer Patrice Vermette recreated locations from the Bridge of the Americas to a subterranean cartel-dug tunnel.

Roger Deakins (center) with Villeneuve (left) on the set of Sicario. Credit: Photograph by Richard Foreman

DP Roger Deakins (center) with Villeneuve (left) on the set of Sicario

The visit to Juarez nonetheless had a huge influence on the visual style of Sicario, shot by cinematographer Roger Deakins (who also lensed Prisoners). “I felt an enormous sense of fear and tension in the city,” the director says. “Sometimes there’s no one in the streets, and then you’ll have a burst of activity and you see people armed like they’re at war. The policemen look like soldiers.”

To render that tension visible, Villeneuve and Deakins decided on a lighting style that would accentuate the harshness of the light that falls upon the U.S.-Mexico border. “We were shooting in a lot of desert areas with brutal top light that I felt we should embrace,” Villeneuve says. “I wanted to emphasize the brutality of the sun and play with the dramatic shadows it creates.” They also used natural light from available sources whenever possible.

Color palettes became “a kind of dance” between the gritty, naturalistic earth tones of the desert and the vibrant colors of the architecture that unfolds throughout Juarez. And relatively little color timing was conducted on the footage: “With Roger Deakins, everything is in camera. What you see on set is what you get. The color timing takes five minutes. The only thing we did was kill as much blue sky as possible.”

This lean, light touch conjures a gloom that seeps inexorably through the film’s every frame. And the same minimalist approach applied to sound design. Villeneuve sums his philosophy up: “Silence. The less sound I can use, the better.”

Even composer Jóhann Jóhannsson—who also worked on Prisoners—does little to disturb that eerie bareness. Per Villeneuve’s instructions, Johannsson wrote “a rhythm like a pulse that would come from the desert, underneath the feet of the characters—a kind of primitive, barbaric pulse.” All this emptiness has the paradoxical effect of pulling the viewer more into Sicario’s world—we lean into the chasm, wanting to hear beyond the silence.

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