The Story Behind 'Sicario'

Credit: Lionsgate

Driving through Cuidad Juarez, one of the border towns of Mexico and historic murder capitol of the world, a white SUV is seemingly tailed by a local vehicle, creating an air of unease. Inside the SUV, undercover Federales packing automatic rifles scan the side roads and shady alleyways, alert for any possible threats.

This is not a scene from the new Lionsgate feature Sicario, but instead a description of a research trip done in January by the film's director Denis Villeneuve and producer Basil Iwanyk. In the end the drive would help inform one of the film's most suspenseful scenes, where an American military squad caravans through Juarez to transport a captured cartel leader across the U.S. border into Texas. There are moments throughout the 121-minute drama about a female FBI agent, played by Emily Blunt, who is recruited by a cloak-and-dagger government team with a primary mission to make the drug cartels "nervous." The events that ensue are presented with gritty realism that feels inspired by headlines, if not pulled directly from them. The title even comes from the word widely used by Mexican cartels to describe their hired assassins.

Villeneuve revealed that he chose to make Sicario as a commentary on the current state of geopolitics. Being inspired by other thrillers like Zero Dark Thirty, he found the issues of gang violence surrounding the Mexican border particularly moving. The pursuit of presenting authenticity on the screen drove Villeneuve, Iwanyk and cinematographer Roger Deakins along with impressive cast of the film to immerse in the drug war narrative both past and present. During a screening at the Museum Of Modern Art, British actor Daniel Kaluuya, who plays Blunt's FBI partner, Reggie, explained that some of the cast was able to meet with agents who had worked similar cases to inform their characters. It probably didn't hurt that some of the action, in particular a gripping SWAT raid in the opening sequence, actually featured ex-Navy Seals, Delta Force, and DEA on camera.

"Early in my career I did a number of documentaries. I've been in a few warzones," says Deakins, who also collaborated with Villeneuve on the thriller Prisoners. "For this film I studied a lot of footage. What is and was happening on the border of Mexico, with the killings, are things you can't un-see. You can't get it out of your head. Luckily I never had to experience anything like the violence in this movie, but I think being in those warzones helped me give the shots a grounding in reality."

In documentarian fashion, Villeneuve and Deakins opted out of using movie magic to recreate the film’s setting in some safe suburban city, instead bringing the production to Albuquerque, New Mexico, El Paso, Texas, and Veracruz, Mexico. Though they were able to shoot exteriors and landscape of Juarez shown in the movie, the prospect of shooting there with principal cast was determined too risky.


"Sicario is a fictional account about something that's happening right now. It's real a problem that has existed for quite awhile," says Josh Brolin, who plays government muscle man Matt Graver. "Hopefully between this, Cartel Land, and Don Winslow's Cartel it can start to become a real conversation."

In the film Brolin's character delivers a speech about the insurmountable percent of Americans using cocaine, stating that his mission is not the impossible feat of stopping the inflow of the drug to the States, but rather to try to control it. It is a speech that Brolin believes to ring true. Villeneuve has concurred that the script by Tyler Sheridan was researched exhaustively before he even put hands on it.

Brolin, who also stars in the mountain climbing epic Everest, expressed that he is more driven to pursue physical roles like this at 47 years old than when he was younger. "More than ever! I think when I was younger I loved torturing myself psychologically as much as possible. But that's become less and less of an interest. I like being in new places now, where I can ask how someone would react in different conditions behaviorally. I'm into being moved. Everest was very moving. And Sicario is very moving."

Sicario is in theaters now.