SICARIO – Jóhann Jóhannsson
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
The rise to power of the Mexican drug cartels has caused immeasurable damage to the cities of northern Mexico over the last couple of decades, as rival groups battle to control the distribution of illegal narcotics across the border and into the United States. Murder, extortion, kidnapping, and corruption are all becoming increasingly commonplace, leaving the good people of border cities like Tijuana, Mexicali, Nogales, and Nuevo Laredo fearful for their lives in the face of the deadly violence all around them. Most dangerous of all is the city of Juárez, across the border from El Paso, Texas, which in the past decade has become the headquarters of the Sinaloa cartel, who notoriously leave the headless corpses of their dead enemies dangling from bridges in the city. The new movie Sicario, directed by Denis Villeneuve, is an uncensored journey into that world from the point of view of FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), who is asked to join a special team by mysterious government official Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), and his equally mysterious advisor Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), with a view to apprehending one of Juárez’s most powerful and notorious bosses.
Sicario is a dark, brutal, oppressive film, which portrays the Mexican cartel wars with unflinching, sometimes stomach-churning realism. Through Blunt’s character – herself an observer – we are able to stand back and watch the action unfold, and gradually learn the nuances and details of this complicated and dangerous world; the tactics the cartels use to gain and maintain power and control, and the tactics the US and Mexican law enforcement agencies use to stop theme The film is gripping, in an edge-of-your-seat sort of way, with several nail-biting set pieces, and character motivations which are intentionally left a little ambiguous, so you are never quite sure whose side everyone is on. Blunt and Del Toro are especially excellent in their leading roles, and special praise has been given to the cinematography by the masterful Roger Deakins, who gives the dusty border cities a shocking beauty, and to the score by Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson; A. O. Scott in the New York Times called it a “slow-moving heart attack of a score,” and it’s about as apt a description as I can think of.
Jóhannsson scored director Villeneuve’s last American mainstream film, Prisoners, in 2013, and was an Academy Award nominee for his lovely score for The Theory of Everything last year, but Sicario is a very different animal indeed. Gone are the elegant, minimalist string tones that so many people connected with. Replacing them is deep, menacing, incessant percussion writing, and an overarching sense of tension and dread that permeates from the first note to the last. In the film, the score is generally excellent; it’s the musical equivalent of a clenched fist or gritted teeth, putting the viewer in a heightened state of sensory super-vigilance, anticipating that next plot twist or moment of gripping anxiety. It ratchets up the drama, pulling the viewer into Kate’s world of unease and uncertainty. She doesn’t fully know what’s going on, and neither do we.
In interviews, Jóhannsson said he wanted to “create music that had an underlying tension and a sense of coming from below the earth, like a throbbing pulse that resonates from underground or the pounding heartbeat of a wild beast that is charging at you,” and that he “also wanted to evoke the sadness and melancholy of the border, the border fences, and the tragedy of the drug war.” He has definitely done that and, as I said, in the film it works like gangbusters, but on CD, it is a slightly different proposition. Sicario is not really a score you can ‘enjoy’. All that vicious percussion, all those throbbing pulses, and all that sadness and melancholy, needs the film to give it context, because without it, too much of it comes off as noise: creative, challenging, impressively composed, but noise nonetheless.
The first main recurring centerpiece of the score is a percussion heartbeat, which permeates the entire score. It acts as the score’s main thrust, almost representing that feeling of hearing your own blood pounding in your head as your pulse races, your heart in your throat. Stylistically, it reminds me a little of the similar ‘heartbeat’ motif Brad Fiedel composed for The Terminator back in 1984 to indicate looming danger, but whereas Fiedel’s work was in the electronic world, Jóhannsson’s is virtually all acoustic. The second recurring element of the score is a descending motif, dark and gritty, which oscillates between cellos and horns. It has an element of Hans Zimmer’s Inception or The Dark Knight to it, through its relentlessness and crushing, overwhelming aura, and seems to act mainly as a recurring musical depiction of the menacing power the cartel has over everything and everyone in Juárez. These two motifs often play against each other, musically depicting Kate’s literal and figurative descent into these morally ambiguous, physically dangerous pits of hell.
Cues like the opening “Armored Vehicle,” “The Beast,” and “Explosion,” showcase these ideas prominently, often accenting them with guttural electronic crashes and sound design elements. In “The Border” Jóhannsson enhances the percussive heartbeat hits with brass interjections and rattling woodwinds down low in the scale, to ramp up a palpable sense of danger, while in “Target” he feeds in unsettling, skittery pizzicato effects behind more blasts of noise, playing on the listener’s nerves. The impressive “Convoy” features the heartbeat overlaid with impressionistic orchestral textures –grinding cellos, insect-like trumpet triplets, growling contrapuntal horns – while the strikingly dark “Tunnel Music” couples the heartbeat with slamming industrial effects, ear-splitting grinding noises, and a variation on the descending motif transposed to devastating, rasping strings.
Once in a while Jóhannsson changes the mood, offering more ambient textures full of regret and uncertainty. “Desert Music” contains a great deal of moody, desolate cello writing, which starts out mournfully, but gradually grows to embrace a sliver of hope through the introduction of woodwind accents and a switch to higher register strings. “Reflection” offers two minutes of whining, tortured-sounding string phrasing, slithering between cellos, basses, and violins, to create hypnotic tone. “Melancholia” features a bank of processed guitars, manipulated to give them a dreamy, faraway sound, and which reminds me a little of Christopher Young’s haunting score for Bright Angel from 1991.
The finale of the score – from “Night Vision” onwards – contains the harshest and most desperate music of all, again featuring more crushing sound design, palpitation-inducing explosions of noise, buzzing atmospheric drones, and performances of the heartbeat motif, the descending string idea, and the instrumental combinations previously heard in “Convoy”. This music is not fun, and not pleasant, but it does its job of allowing the listener to experience a similar sense of isolation, dread, and uncertainty as Kate, as she fights for her life deep beneath the Sonoran desert. A new idea emerges in the final two cues, “Soccer Game” and “Alejandro’s Song,” a humming vocal effect overlaid with the drones and string ambiences – fearful, reflective, resigned – which eventually gives way to a high pitched wail, possibly a boy soprano, processed and manipulated into an unearthly sound. It’s a stark, nihilistic conclusion to the score, commenting on the fact that the status quo of life in the land of the cartels goes on.
Reviewing a score like Sicario is difficult, because – like many scores these days – it’s not really meant to be ‘enjoyed’ from the point of view of an album of music. In many ways, Jóhannsson’s score falls into the same group of scores as Mica Levi’s Under the Skin from last year, in that it is a prime example of music which is a perfect fit for its film, but contains very little of anything film score traditionalists usually require from their purchases: there are no real thematic ideas, no memorable hooks, nothing really to take away on its own terms. In intellectual musical terms the score is impressive, and the performance techniques employed are certainly interesting from that perspective, but unless you actually like listening to challenging sound design scores and deconstructing them in that manner, I would recommend exercising caution – or, at least watching the film – before you purchase.
Buy the Sicario soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- Armored Vehicle (1:39)
- The Beast (3:14)
- The Border (2:56)
- Drywall (2:32)
- Explosion (1:07)
- Desert Music (5:06)
- Target (2:01)
- Convoy (2:55)
- The Bank (2:03)
- Surveillance (1:29)
- Reflection (1:56)
- Melancholia (4:35)
- Night Vision (3:44)
- Tunnel Music (4:39)
- Fausto (2:16)
- Balcony (1:35)
- Soccer Game (4:19)
- Alejandro’s Song (5:47)
Running Time: 55 minutes 34 seconds
Varese Sarabande 302-067-369-8 (2015)
Music composed by Jóhann Jóhannsson. Conducted by Anthony Weedon. Orchestrations by Jóhann Jóhannsson, Anthony Weedon and Stan Koch. Recorded and mixed by Gabor Buczko and Daniel Kresco. Edited by Joseph S. DeBeasi. Album produced by Jóhann Jóhannsson.