When I saw Denis Villeneuve’s Maelstrom at a film festival in 2000, I walked out. Today, I don’t remember a thing about that film. Perhaps I should give it another chance. Sicario is one of my favourite films of 2015, and the Sicario Threshold sequence is one of the best I’ve ever seen.
I’m now also sure the Untitled Blade Runner Project is in the best possible hands. (And I shall henceforth refrain from making derogatory remarks about Canadian film.)
Sicario shows an astonishing directorial discipline, bringing the very best out of its creatives. Roger Deakins’ 2.35 : 1 widescreen camera work is glorious, Emily Blunt gives her best performance ever, and I adore the movie’s score. This picture does full justice to the cinematic format, and reminded me why sometimes it is worth leaving your house to go celebrate theatrical films.
PLAYING WITH FORM
Given the issues of point of view, Sicario is a difficult story to tell for the screen, but Villeneuve delivers the movie with an elegance that belies its challenges.
We open from the POV of FBI agent Kate Macer (Blunt), who gradually learns more about the enigmatic character of Alejandro (Del Toro). When we are ready and we ‘get’ him, we step into his point of view, to witness his actions – including the film’s climactic finale – in the first person. This device, whereby we learn about the main character through the eyes of an ‘exposition character’ reminded me of the first half of the 2nd act of Inception. In that movie, we learn about of Don Cobb (Di Caprio) from the character of Ariadne (Page).
Only, Villeneuve goes one step further.
Just after the mid point, Alejandro takes a decisive action that promotes him to the story’s Hero. At the end of act 2, he is the character who transitions into the last act, leaving Kate behind.
The final 24 minutes are entirely his, and all Kate does, is complete her Inner Journey in her final shot.
MARKS OF A HERO’S JOURNEY
It took me a while to get into this film. Twenty-five minutes to be precise. Before that time, we see FBI agents killed in a gruesome victim recovery operation at a gangster’s house. Next, we are left in the dark about the future of the team leader, agent Macer, just as much as she is, herself.
What are the FBI’s plans with Kate? Is this an art film? A docudrama? At the exact 25 minute mark, Sicario reveals itself as a mythical story. Not a traditional one, but a powerful journey including all the essential archetypes and plot points of a full-blown quest.
So what happens after twenty-five minutes?
The Sicario Threshold Sequence
The Threshold Journey is the Hero’s travel into the special world. This is often a geographical trip from one place to the next.
At the same time, it is a psychological journey, as the Hero prepares to go into psychological territory that is unfamiliar.
So in a sense, a Hero’s Journey pretty much always shows its protagonist as a fish-out-of-water.
In Raiders, Indie travels from the university to Nepal, and then to Cairo, where the story will take place. This double journey emphasises that the hero is far, far away from home. In Star Wars: A New Hope, Luke travels first to Mos Eisley, and next into deep space.
In the Sicario Threshold, Kate Macer flies to El Paso first, and from there she crosses the Mexican border towards ‘The Beast’: Juarez. This is a monumental sequence, lasting nearly fifteen minutes. All along, our heroine doesn’t do much more than watch, from her seat in a convoy of five fast-moving black chevy SUV’s.
Watching it in awe, I instantly fell in love with the movie. Structurally it threshold resembles a Russian doll, and the border represents the crossing into the second act … of the threshold. You still with me?
Through impressive helicopter shots we see the landscape change; from Kate’s POV we witness the gruesome dangers of the special world, and meanwhile we keep on moving deeper into this foreign territory. The travel becomes increasingly suspenseful, until the cars finally stop. We are now exactly halfway the sequence.
On the way back, the Sicario threshold gets its own hair-raising climax, at the return border crossing towards the US.
The filmmakers clearly understand their threshold journeys.
Needless to say, this time I didn’t walk out.
– Karel Segers
(The clip below doesn’t include the full Threshold Journey. We cut just before a shot that is R-rated.
However, if you watch the video to the end, you will get access to a draft of Taylor Sheridan’s screenplay.)