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.
[box style=”rounded”]I may be spoiling some elements of the film, but I will attempt to discuss them in abstracto.
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.)
Karel Segers wrote his first produced screenplay at age 17. Today he is a story analyst with experience in acquisition, development and production. He has trained students worldwide, and worked with half a dozen Academy Award nominees. Karel speaks more European languages than you have fingers on your left hand, which he is still trying to find a use for in his hometown of Sydney, Australia. The languages, not the fingers.
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8 thoughts on “Sicario Threshold Sequence”
Everyone seems to be having a party with this film and I’m the only one missing out. The story I saw was, “Some US military and law enforcement types get irritated with the lack of impact on drug smuggling of legal policing methods and decide instead to treat Mexico as if it were Iraq or Afghanistan. The viewpoint character is ambivalent about this but there’s not much she can do to stop it. The end.” Depending on whether you think the villains can win the film’s philosophy is either belligerent anomie or depressed fatalism. The viewpoint character is involuntarily passive.
All this double threshold business … it’s a technique, maybe it can do useful things, but it’s not enough to hang a movie on. If it’s the main thing you find yourself talking about I think that’s a sign the rest of the film was lacking.
Sicario shares with Saving Private Ryan that the most interesting, striking and memorable scene of the film happens quite early (though not in media res).
Everyone else seems to love it so I guess I missed something but I can’t see what.
You didn’t miss a thing.
It’s called taste.
If I were to be asked for my opinion on the script, I would have huge reservations. You are absolutely right, although the Threshold primes us perfectly for the journey, it doesn’t guarantee a movie that works.
In fact, I find it surprising that it DID make its money back. At a worldwide gross of USD$80m, they’ve recouped about 2.5 times the production budget (USD$30m), so they should be in the clear.
To me, the Threshold worked as a lubricant for the problems with the film that were lying ahead. It won so many brownie points with me that I was willing to accept the POV shift, or even the Protagonist shift.
Final point: how did you watch the movie? Did you see it on the big screen? It’s cinematic, and the experience makes a huge difference.
So, yeah, your story/theme summary is spot on. To me it was the full cinematic experience that did it. The script was not a huge selling point.
Ah yes, taste. I’ve between told before that’s what I’m missing. :-)
I saw it on a movie screen, not a special vmax or anything but it ought to be cinematic enough I think.
I’m fond of Blunt but I don’t think this was her best by any means. To pick an example at random I liked her better in Edge of Tomorrow. (A surreal role: her character behaves differently each time we meet her because situation is changing, but zero character development.)
I think it’s one of those films that simply doesn’t hold up to a specific story paradigm and trying to force it upon its structure causes more frustration and consternation. I don’t have a problem with the POV character being passive; it’s by design because she’s the main character – but not the protagonist, just as Scout isn’t the protagonist in To Kill a Mockingbird or Red in The Shawshank Redemption. The important thing is, the protagonists in those respective stories have an impact on them and cause them to change.
With regards to Sicario specifically, the story has elements of a mystery which further identifies the audience with Kate as we know as much as she does, when she does. Once it’s revealed what’s really going on, the fundamentals of the story themselves don’t shift – they’ve been there all along. It’s our perception that shifts. That’s why it’s important to analyze a story in its totality, once all the cards have been laid out and why separating the function of protagonist and main character is essential in some stories – nobody realizes that Andy Dufresne has been actively pursuing a prison-break in The Shawshank Redemption because we experience the story through Red’s eyes (and ultimately feel the impact on Andy has on him as a result.) That’s why some movie critics, like Owen Gleiberman, get it wrong when they saying “laconic-good-guy, neo-Gary Cooper role, Tim Robbins is unable to make Andy connect with the audience.” They weren’t meant to, otherwise the ending with Red would never have worked.
That was, for me, perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Sicario: most of us believe, or want to believe, that our authorities act justly, so we willingly follow Kate and believe she’s doing the right thing. But once the cards are turned over and we realize what’s REALLY going on, we start to doubt Kate’s approach and, at least in my experience, slightly turn on her once we understand the motivations involved. In the end, the film hammers home it’s ultimate intent by showing us nothing has really changed with regards to the violence.
Karel, could you please help me? I have a script that I’m really passionate about but I can’t for the life of me think of a Logline to describe it that is not a metaphor yet describes the essence of the script