Tension and Action: Scene structure in “Sicario”

The key to understanding the core of the movie are the three long action scenes: the Juarez escorting, the tunnel attack and Alejandro’s irruption into the house of the boss.

After the involvement in the task force, Kate’s strong motivation to find the responsible and her faith in justice are faced with the rough methods used by Matt and his assistant Alejandro, whose role is even more ambiguous. Kate is suspicious because she understands that there is something rotten in this operation. Kate gets in Matt’s plane and lands on a military base at the Mexican border near the Mexican city of Juarez. As soon as they arrive, Kate is involved in an escorting mission to bring to the USA the brother of the drug cartel boss.

The scene is perfectly realized. The entire operation covers around 13 minutes of the movie and the tension grows constantly till the end. As a video published by CineFix on Youtube shows, the real violence is concentrated in three sequences in the last minute and, summed up, it lasts only 9 seconds. However, the effect is impressive.

As the task force goes to Juarez, takes the prisoner and comes back, the audience is forced to hold its breath, almost fearing that anything could happen at any moment, that the situation could escalate quickly at any time, but basically nothing happens. The attention to details increases, the focus on the scene rises constantly. The quick shots of the camera, the nervous dialogues, the rhythm and the tone of the sound: all level up the anxiety and nerve-tensing feeling of upcoming risks. Kate’s point of view doesn’t help: she is worried and nervous, she doesn’t fully understand what’s going on.

Then on the bridge, that is the most probable place for an attack, the danger is immediately spotted, as we could expect from professionals. Three steps: a suspect car, people inside holding weapons, a move. That is all it takes to shoot, regular protocols are completely ignored. The scheme repeats itself twice with two different cars, the action is limited to few seconds. After that, a variation: a Mexican corrupted policeman tries to kill Kate, but she sees him and shoots him. Action, repetition, variation: 9 seconds of action, but 13 minutes of thrill and suspense.

For sure, the first thing to appreciate in this movie is the structure of the scenes. No useless brutality, no never-ending shooting takes, no impossible tricks. The wait for the action is much of the action itself, it takes you right beside Kate, it makes you feel as the agents do. And then the real violence is just like a controlled explosion, quick and swift.

The second long action scene works as the first, with some changes. First of all, the storyline develops in between the two action scenes. As time goes by, Kate realizes she doesn’t have any power on the operation. Matt takes all the decisions and he doesn’t even tell her all the details. As the difference between right and wrong gets increasingly blurred, she is no more sure of her task, she feels frustrated, confused and her personal life gets involved. Only a little help comes from one of her friends, FBI agent Reggie Wayne (Daniel Kaluuya), that supports her and, this time, takes part in the mission.

The task force has to clear the tunnel used by the drug dealers to go from the USA to Mexico and back in order to stop the business and to let Alejandro pass through it to continue the mission. 

Again, the scene lasts 10 minutes and about 8 minutes are dedicated to preparing the equipment, organising the moves and approaching the tunnel. It has been shot at dusk and after, completely in the dark, which is unconventional. Usually, night time scenes are realized in two ways: either they are filmed in daylight and then a filter is added to create the “night effect” or lamps are used to light the set. In fact, when the sun disappears, the scene is shown alternatively through infrared and thermal visors. The unusual visual style doesn’t allow to see perfectly the environment, thus letting the audience imagine once again that the risk could be behind any rock.

However, nothing happens till they enter the tunnel. We see the consequences of the fight (the corpse of a drug-dealer) and we hear the gunshot before we get to see the shootout itself (action). This time, the violence gets more confused, because the enemy is not clearly spotted and our point of view, Kate, is in the rear-guard, but still, it lasts no more than a minute. Kate almost gets shot but she fights her way through (repetition). The tension is again perfectly built over time.

In a sense, the violence is not the central point as it was before. In the first scene, Kate’s only aim was to survive, in the second her objective is to see what is really happening. Therefore, the end of the scene, the klimax, is indeed much different from the one we analysed before. Kate doesn’t know Alejandro’s objective and she tries to stop him because he is not following the protocol, but he shoots her (variation). Kate survives and crawls back to the beginning of the tunnel where she has an argument with Matt.

The sequence that follows is a key one in the movie. Finally, Kate understands that her role is to testify that everything has been done according to the law, even if it clearly wasn’t. Matt needed her because a CIA agent cannot operate inside the borders of the USA unless a member of a national agency, such as the FBI, cooperates in the mission.

The third action scene is much more traditional. It shows Alejandro completing his task, that was to kill the drug cartel boss. It is again about 11 minutes long but this time violence covers about 7 minutes. The scheme is broken and at the same time maintained: it is the end, the mystery has disappeared, the laws have been overstepped, hence the tension-building is no more needed but at the same time we can spot the action, repetition and variation scheme once again.

In fact, the action scenes respect the three-party scheme and at the same time, they represent the discovery of the true nature of the mission. The first scene is an apparently regular escorting operation, even though rules are not followed strictly, and it is shot in daylight. The second scene is much more similar to a special unit raid, Matt says that there are no rules of engagement and it is shot at dusk. The third scene is clearly a secret agent irruption, with permission to kill at first sight, and it is shot at night-time. Metaphorically, Kate digs deeper in the relationship with Matt and Alejandro and finally understands their obscure roles.

by Amedeo Zorzi

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