This story originally appeared in the Actors/Directors/Writers issue of TheWrap’s Oscar magazine.
Director Denis Villeneuve sees his Mexican drug-war film “Sicario” not as a thriller–though it certainly packs an action punch–but rather as the second in what he hopes will be a trilogy of films about the dark side of the American imagination. They began with his 2013 revenge drama “Prisoners,” and will conclude, after the director’s upcoming reboot of “Blade Runner,” with “something that has to do with what I call ‘the underground American shadows,’” said Villeneuve.
To capture the moral shadiness in “Sicario,” Villeneuve made distinctive use of silence interrupted by violence, inspired by his passion for Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai.” “The use of silence is something I love,” said the director–and fortunately for him, Benicio Del Toro, who plays a morally ambiguous hitman (or “Sicario”), agreed. The actor, who won an Oscar for a similar drama (“Traffic”) and will be the hero of a forthcoming “Sicario” sequel, asked Villeneuve to cut his lines, to serve the dark strangeness of the character and story.
“We both loved the screenplay [by actor-turned-writer Taylor Sheridan],” said Villeneuve, “but we felt his character would benefit by less dialogue. Benicio thought that the movie will be believable if we believe his character comes from an extreme world. People who experience violence are very taciturn. They don’t want to share their horror.”
One of the most horrific scenes in the film involves a brutal shooting that the viewer never sees–except in Del Toro’s wordless reaction to it. “Dialogue for me is for theater, an art for the stage,” Villeneuve said. “Cinema is not about dialogue. It’s about images and moments and present tense. Benicio can convey more by the way he breathes in front of the camera than any line–the way he portrays tension, the way you feel when you see him.”
While Del Toro’s character remains a mystery, the film adopts the point of view of the FBI agent played by Emily Blunt, who gradually discovers the brutality and moral ambiguity of the drug war. “She is basically us, the audience, as Terrence Howard‘s character was in ‘Prisoners,’” said cinematographer Roger Deakins. “She leads us into this moral dilemma–how much do you allow your government to do these things in your name?”
The result is a film that gives a fresh, character-rich take on a highly familiar subject. Summed up Villeneuve: “I felt there was a way to make a movie that I haven’t
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