Name a cinematographer. OK, name five. Struggling? I’m sure you’re not alone. It’s a weird thing, isn’t it, that, in such a visual medium, the person responsible for actually bringing you the image should be so relatively anonymous? While a good editor behind the scenes can help, when you read a book there’s nothing between you and the author. But cinema is such a complex and collaborative artform that even the most low-budget of independent pieces is likely to have required the efforts of multiple people, yet for many few names beyond the director are known.

Lists of the greatest and most influential cinematographers include such names as the great Italian Vittorio Storaro, the leading cinematographer of the Mexican Golden Age, Gabriel Figuerora, Conrad L. Hall and Citizen Kane’s DP Gregg Toland. How many of those names could most people bring to mind? Hall, perhaps? Occasionally a cinematographer will become more well-known amongst the general audience, often because of their repeated collaborations with a particular director, for example Janusz Kamiński with Steven Spielberg and the Brothers Coen’s regular collaborator, Roger Deakins.

It’s this last we’re going to focus on today, who, as well as being my favourite DP is, thanks to the Coens, the first that I can recall being truly aware of.

Devon native Deakins began his film career in the early eighties, working with his former schoolmate Michael Radford, and where he pioneered the Western use of the bleach bypass technique. In the early nineties he began his legendary partnership with the Coen Brothers, with whom he has now worked on a dozen films, and began his “always the bridesmaid never the bride” run at the Academy Awards, before his third collaboration with the Québécois director Denis Villeneuve, Blade Runner 2049, finally brought him the shiny wee man. (Other awards bodies were, of course, considerably less short-sighted.)

His work is often marked out by high contrast shots, particularly with sparse lighting, atmospheric silhouettes (for example, the night shots of Skyfall’s climax, backlit by fire), and a tendency to shoot with Super35 spherical lenses in preference to anamorphic lenses. He also rarely uses zoom lenses, preferring to use dollies. More subjectively, there’s rarely an ugly shot in any film that he is involved with (unless the film calls for it), and his visuals are consistently well-considered and meticulously composed and lit.

For this episode we’ve chosen seven films, and selecting those was no mean feat. The initial thought we had was to begin our long list with just his award-winning films, but it turns out that’s most of them. So instead we’ve tried to bring you a slice across his career, from the early days of 1984’s Ninety Eighty-Four, through the start of his collaboration with the Coens, one of Martin Scorsese’s more offbeat choices and then up to the much-lauded 1917.

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When a film gets so talked up before its release for the unconventional or ground-breaking way that it was shot, or some other feat of filmmaking, then it’s easy to become concerned that it’s going to be a gimmick, and more style than substance. If you missed it, 1917’s big thing was that director Sam Mendes and DP Roger Deakins had planned out a film that would appear as one long, unbroken, take.

LIES! ALL LIES! The protagonist loses consciousness part way through to allow a transition to the time just before dawn. Fakery! Infamy! It’s clearly two long, unbroken takes. I demand a refund!

The other danger is that people get hung up on the technical aspects and lose sight of how it serves the story, one of the most notable examples of this being the long Steadicam shot in Goodfellas as Henry enters the club with Karen. That was an impressive feat logistically and in terms of performance, but it was how that scene brought Karen, and the viewer, into Henry’s world, that mattered. While as a film not as good as Goodfellas, 1917’s trick is, I am pleased to say, just as much in service to the film as that Steadicam shot, though in its case more to tone than story, creating a sense of tension, urgency and fluidity that few films can maintain.

The story is fairly simple: it’s 1917 (weird, right?), and British communication lines have been cut during the German retreat to the Hindenburg Line. An assault on the German positions is planned by the Devonshire Regt., but they’re operating on out of date information. Aerial photography shows that, at the risk of sounding liking a space fish, it’s a trap. Colin Firth’s General Erinmore despatches L. Cpl Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), whose brother is a lieutenant in the Devonshires, with an urgent message for the commander to halt the attack or risk the deaths of all 1,600 men. It’s a desperate run across no-man’s land and through occupied towns, but speed is key so he is sent with only a single companion, George MacKay’s Will Schofield.

One of our heroes dies not long into the journey (the draining of colour from the stricken soldier’s skin is one of the most memorable war movie moments I have ever seen, in a film with plenty of them), and the survivor must complete the seemingly hopeless journey alone.

The photography, as you might well expect, is incredible, and the choices made help with the story. An early scene has one of the goriest and grisliest settings I’ve ever seen, but the set dressing and the colour temperature prevent it being immediately obvious. It’s only after we’ve been there for a few minutes, and the camera moves closer, that we can begin to make out recognisable shapes and comprehend what we’re seeing, and Schofield’s hand is put somewhere that it likely to precipitate many a visceral reaction.

From there the film moves through verdant fields and bleached, lifeless quarries, to a dingy bunker and a spitefully wrecked cherry orchard, the bright blossom of which is in stark juxtaposition to the death and destruction surrounding it, the colours and lighting varying with, and evoking, both location and mood. In the village of Écoust-Saint-Mein, where the film commits its great lie – ALL LIES! – Deakins paints a striking scene lit only by flares and fire as Schofield runs towards dawn. There is not a moment of this film not in some way visually interesting.

Based on stories told to him by his grandfather, Alfred Mendes, Sam Mendes’ 1917 manages to solve the problem of World War 1 films, which is that it was in many ways a very static war, with entrenched soldiers and artillery barrages (and only the occasional utterly wasteful and suicidal run against other entrenched soldiers, with machine guns). In that regard it is, certainly, very artificial, but it manages to give a strong flavour of much of the landscape of the war, and much of its horror too.

What I want to do soon is to watch this again and try to turn off the analytical part of my brain, or at least that part that went in thinking “I am going to jolly well spot all of your transitions!” And spot them I did, I think, or most of them at least, and it just added to my appreciation of the film’s craft. There’s no great trickery, they’re just very skilfully done: a fade into darkness as a bunker is entered, the crossing of a wall around an orchard. And because they are so masterfully masked then most people won’t even think about them, let alone see them. And while I appreciate the craft I do regret that I may have misdirected my attention somewhat. That said, 1917 is much more about tone and action than plot so I doubt I did myself too much of a disservice, and I still thoroughly enjoyed it.


Continuing the theme of films titled with years, in which we must beware the savage roar of George Orwell’s 1984. This represents one of those fleetingly rare cases where I actually have read the source material. Although, I suspect even if you haven’t, you’re probably still going to be fairly familiar with the general gist of it, what with the whole “George Orwell being so prescient about aspects of human nature and technology that his surname became an adjective” thing. Let’s see if Michael Radford’s film can step out of the shadow cast by the source material.

The political map projection of 1984‘s world is rather less colourful than ours, with a series of ongoing conflicts leaving three supernations locked in a permanent war. In a bombed out part of what was London, now simply a sector of Airstrip One, the eastern edge of Oceania, which is predominantly the Americas, John Hurt’s Winston Smith goes about a necessarily austere life as a mid level Party apparatchik, a tool of the totalitarian rulers, altering historical records to fit with approved party lines and removing or “unpersoning” anyone no longer deemed suitable.

Now, as with the book, there is a narrative, largely driven by Winston’s illicit relationship with a fellow party member, Suzanna Hamilton’s Julia, where they commit the heinous crimes of love and free though, from a base in the less tightly controlled proletariat areas, who are somewhat vaguely characterised as a mass of completely uninformed people kept entirely entertained by trivialities, presumably like some sort of post-apocalyptic reality TV. Eventually this is uncovered by the thought police, and they are taken away for a spot of light re-education slash mind breaking torture at the behest of party higherup, Richard Burton’s O’Brien.

It is, however, a narrative that raises far more questions than it answers. I’m not often one to harp on about plot holes, but not much about the Julia and O’Brien’s instigating actions make a great deal of sense, aside from them being useful to drive the plot along. A love based on narrative imperative, perhaps. But I suppose the point is not so critical given that the impossibility of expecting normal human reactions from the deeply inhuman system the characters find themselves in is sort of the overarching point of the work.

There’s a slew of dystopian tropes that were either born from or greatly popularised by 1984 – pervasive, intrusive surveillance, controlling the past to control the present, how controlling language can control expression, doublethink, thoughtcrimes, the two minute hate, and while I’d argue it’s the concepts and the language that’s the reason the novel has endured, Deakins made a good fist of the imagery of it to. I mean, when what’s widely regarded as one the of best adverts ever made is directly inspired by this, it surely has some place in the wider culture. The ominous form of the ever watching Big Brother, the contrast between the ruins of Airstrip One and the seemingly miraculously surviving green land that becomes a symbol of hope and freedom for Winston are standouts, alongside the general Fallout-ish post apocalyptia.

However at heart 1984 is more about the words than the visuals, and any film translation will struggle to capture that focus. I think Michael Radford and crew have done as well as can be expected on that front. The performances from Hurt, Hamilton and Burton are… well, weird. They’re not behaving and acting as normal human beings, which can come across as stilted, but the point is that their society isn’t letting them be normal human beings. Likewise when O’Brien is torturing Winston with the checked out air of a distracted bureaucrat, well again, it’s all intentional, I assume, but it does feel, well, weird.

So then, I suppose 1984 gets a mild recommendation, either for the interested or for those who don’t want to read the book, but it’s not essential viewing, and, well, the book knocks this into a cocked hat.

If nothing else, it’s good to see Rab C. Nesbitt on the big screen.

Barton Fink

Now here’s a slightly inconvenient thing for a film podcast, most particularly an episode focusing on cinematography: I don’t actually need to watch Barton Fink. Oh, not in a The Big Leboswki-like way, in that I really don’t need to watch it, the entire film is burned into the inside of my mind, but that I could just close my eyes and listen to Joel and Ethan Coen’s exceptional dialogue (not that Barton Fink is itself exceptional in that regard: that’s table stakes for the brothers from Minnesota). And that would, indeed, be particularly appropriate for this tale of a young New York playwright, played by John Turturro, who moves to Hollywood for a stint writing for the pictures so that he can then afford to spend as long as he wants writing about the struggles of the common man.

But to so close my eyes would, of course, mean I miss out on so much, from Turturro and John Goodman’s wonderfully expressive faces to the distinctive visual stylings and Deakins’ compositions (this film marking his first time working with the siblings).

Struggling to complete work on Miller’s Crossing (writer’s block, it is assumed by most, though they deny this), attention was turned to this tale of a socialist, activist playwright selling his soul to work at Capitol Pictures for Michael Lerner’s Jack Lipnick (yes, that’s the same Capitol Pictures that would later appear in Hail, Caesar!). Wanting somewhere to stay “less Hollywood” than the studio was minded to give him, Fink sets himself up in the slightly shabby, more than slightly odd Hotel Earle and sets to work on his first job: writing a script for a wrestling B-movie. And while the Coens may have written Barton Fink in an astonishing 3 weeks, their protagonist isn’t so productive, struggling to write word one, unless somehow he can shoehorn fishmongers into wrestling.

After initially complaining about the very loud laughter coming from the room, Fink befriends his neighbour at the hotel, John Goodman’s Charlie Meadows, a gregarious and friendly insurance salesman who represents exactly the sort of salt-of-the-earth regular Joe that he wants to write about. Meanwhile, in the hopes of getting a kickstart from the proximity of another writer, Fink spends time with John Mahoney’s William Faulkner-inspired W.P. Mayhew, and his secretary and lover, Audrey (Judy Davis).

After a desperate late night plea for help with an impending deadline, Audrey and Barton sleep together, and when he wakes up finds he’s in an entirely different genre of film altogether, though the film wilfully eschews easy definitions of genre at all.

It really was the beginning of a beautiful friendship, and Deakins has said that the Coens’ meticulous method of filmmaking has influenced him. Here, he has provided the film with that warm, slightly unreal, tone that screams “1940s!”, and his always carefully considered compositions, which in this case often have a still, painting-like quality, reflect the breakdown of Fink’s psyche.

The centrepiece of this is the Hotel Earle, which stands in stark relief to the light and vivid, yet slightly phony, environs of the studio and Lipnick’s office, and the sharply rendered world of sophisticated New York art society in which the film begins. The Earle exudes a greenish sickliness and a feeling of stifling, clammy air that oppresses the viewer as much as the character: you’ll want to loosen your collar, and probably also scratch and then take a shower (the similarities between the weeping wallpaper paste and Charlie’s pus-filled ear are not coincidental).

The Earle is a metaphorical hell, and will later become an actual inferno, in another beautifully shot sequence using fire, one of Deakin’s favourite tools. Together with art directors Bob Goldstein and Leslie McDonald, he made the Earle a central character.

There’s good reason Barton Fink has found itself on numerous lists of defining films of the nineties, and that’s because it’s superb. It was even so successful at Cannes that the festival changed the rules so that no subsequent film could win so many prizes. The acting is excellent, Turturro and Goodman in particular (Goodman’s role was written specifically written to take advantage of the friendly, avuncular image he naturally projects to the audience, and then subvert it), Carter Burwell’s eerie score is unsettling and the dialogue simply amazing.

And what is Barton Fink? A comedy? A drama? A noir thriller? A dark comedy? A dramedy?



I think that most people, not unreasonably, would associate Martin Scorsese with crime and gangster films, but he has had an extremely varied career, including musicals, steampunky odes to cinema pioneers, stories of 17th century Christian priests in feudal Japan and a documentary on Bob Dylan. Even in that varied body of work, though, one of the somewhat more surprising entries into his canon must be 1997’s Kundun, a tale of the life the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, from his (re) birth until the time he was forced into exile in India, and based on Gyatso’s own writing.

The first half of the film concerns the finding of the Dalai Lama as a child, his upbringing in the monastery, and his assumption of the duties of spiritual and political leader of Tibet before he is ready, while in the background looms the threat, and from our perspective, knowledge, that China is getting ready to steal his country. The second portion deals with the Lama’s role as a leader in a nation occupied by the Chinese army, and his dealings with Chairman Mao “Why isn’t this guy vilified like Hitler is, I’ve never understood this, he was despicable and was responsible for the deaths of tens of millions of people I really don’t get it but also I may be straying from the point” Zedong, for which he was ill-equipped by experience. As China tightens its grip on Tibet, and becomes more violent, Gyatso flees the country for the not unreasonable desire to not immediately be dead (again), please, and to lead his people from abroad until such time as non-violent means free his country.

Kundun is rather hard to talk about as it’s not unfair to characterise it as a bunch of things that happen. Certainly, its structure is quite episodic and not particularly well tied-together, a series of vignettes that feel like they’ve been plucked from a journal, which is almost certainly what they are. It is, however, interesting; portions of the life and intertwined religion of a country and culture not particularly well-known to English-speaking audiences, though for that reason it also frustrates because I want to know what that thing is, and why those guys are doing that thing. It’s also largely cast with non-actors, and while that lends an air of authenticity to many passages, the stiltedness with which many deliver their lines can be jarring. It’s probably best just to try to absorb the atmosphere and look up the details later.

That experience would, fortunately, be pretty enjoyable, even with Philip Glass’s score (actually, this is a Philip Glass score which I actually like, amazing since, with a couple of exceptions, “can live with it” is generally the best I can ever hope for with his work), and that, unsurprisingly is due in large part to Roger Deakins. I’ve not seen this since it was first released on home video (my usual note here that this is despite, of course, owning it for years in the interim), and I’d forgotten quite how beautiful it is. Filmed in the Atlas mountains of Morocco as a very convincing stand-in for Tibet, it’s the sort of landscape you’d have to work very hard to not make look gorgeous, or at least striking, just by setting the camera down and taking off the lens cap, but Deakins elevates it to something greater; a place that seems at the same time tranquil and impossibly harsh, beautiful and cruel, a setting where it is not difficult to wonder at the flourishing of spirituality.

There’s an otherworldliness to it, an appropriately meditative, dreamlike quality, and Deakins himself has described the film as being like a tone poem more than a narrative.

It’s definitely not a film that’s going to satisfy many, perhaps not even most, but I would suggest it’s interesting enough if you haven’t seen it, and you probably haven’t. And there’s a reason for that: Disney. Disney bought the distribution rights, then pretty much torpedoed it instantly because of China, with then CEO Michael Eisner saying it “a stupid mistake” and that the “film was an insult to our friends, but other than journalists few people in the world ever saw it”. I’m glad that sort of behaviour’s behind them.

Oh, did you hear that Disney blocked distribution of an episode of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver in India because it was critical of the Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi? That was three days ago. Disney are cunts.

O Brother, Where Art Thou?

A film perfectly suited for me, as I am indeed a man of constant sorrow. Like all British people. We just will not stop apologising.

This one hundred percent literal adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey sees George Clooney, John Turturro, and Tim Blake Nelson make a break for freedom from a chain gang, as Clooney’s loquacious Ulysses Everett McGill promises to share a portion of some buried, ill gotten treasure with Pete and Delmar if they help him get to that location before it is flooded by a soon to be commissioned dam.

To be honest, if you try to recap succinctly the plot of O Brother, you will sound like a madman in the throes of a fever dream, so best to just call it a road trip, in which scarcely believable events happen to our leads that will see them accidentally become phenomenally successful recording artists, put them in a tight spot, test their haircare regimen, test the bonds of family and friendship, and have John Goodman smack them in the face with a tree branch.

I loved O Brother back on release, and although I don’t think I’ve actually watched it in the interim, in the main that’s because that first run through did a pretty bang up job of imprinting itself on me to the point that I’ll often think back to the outright weirdness of having the “we’re in tight spot” phrase as a running joke for, like, two minutes, then dropping it, or buying a tee-shirt featuring McGill’s preferred pomade solution.

I am gratified to find myself just as entertained this time round, with excellent performances all round and sharp, tightly honed dialogue that makes it exceptionally easy to pass the time with these characters as they are swept along on their journey. Sure, it doesn’t make a great deal of sense, but when it’s this much fun I’m not that bothered.

The strongest inspiration it perhaps takes from Odyssey is, well, the form, I suppose. This is a myth of the American South in the Depression, not a documentary, so perhaps it could be said to capture an emotional if not literal truth. I’ll leave that to the comparative historians, I’m just a boy, speaking on a podcast, recommending that you watch this, in the unlikely event you have not yet done so.

As for your boy Deakins, he’s really dropped the ball on this one. Looks terrible. Hang on, wait, no, the opposite of that. I regret the error. It’s never lead than pretty, all (presumably highly grade) sun dappled golden hours and dreamy sequences at moments of, let’s say, heightened reality, and it’s a delight to watch even with the audio off. Although, obviously, you shouldn’t do that, because of the excellence of the dialogue, and the superb soundtrack.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

When we were composing the list of films that we wanted to cover in this episode, the first title, aside from 1917, that went on, and without any discussion, was New Zealand filmmaker Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford from 2007, which at the time had a lot of buzz around its cinematography, particularly Deakins’ use of old wide angle lenses, unconventionally mounted, to create vignettes evocative of antique photography. Beyond looking good, though, I think we had all remembered that the film itself was underwhelming.

The title, clearly, gives a pretty solid idea of the story the film tells, but the assassination itself is a very minor part. It covers a few months from 1881 to 1882 in which the legendary James gang, now consisting only of Jesse James, Brad Pitt, and his brother Frank, Sam Shepard, and a handful of latecomers, commits one final train robbery in Missouri. After this the gang disperses, and tries to keep away from the law, and an increasingly paranoid Jesse.

The younger brother of one of the gang members, Sam Rockwell’s Charley, is the infamous Robert Ford, who as a child lapped up all the dime novels telling of the “exploits” of Jesse James, and who tries to ingratiate himself with the outlaw. A realisation of the truth, and the fact he killed his James’ cousin, will put Ford in a position where it’s kill or be killed. In the aftermath, since he only killed one man instead of dozens, Ford will find himself vilified rather than lionised.

It’s a disappointing thing to find that the film I was most looking forward to revisiting is, in fact, the worst. It is also the longest, a meandering tale with many dull subplots that finds little to nothing to say, and is not helped by a title that makes me angry. Though the title is that of the 1983 book upon which it is based, it really rubs me the wrong way, immediately suggesting that James’ death was somehow a tragedy, and that his killer is the true villain. I don’t know how widespread this is in the rest of the world, but it’s a curious thing that in two countries of the English-speaking world, the United States and Australia, there is a particular reverence for “outlaws”, that somehow there is something romantic and appealing about these men (it is fitting indeed that Nick Cave, also one of the film’s composers, pops up near the end to sing a ballad lamenting James’ death, given his countrymen’s fascination with Ned Kelly). Jesse James, like Kelly, was a murderous thug, as well as a probable war criminal, and I’m not going to accept a film trying to persuade me otherwise.

That said, I am open to a film trying to demonstrate why people would be drawn to a character like James, but here, as in most aspects, the film fails. James is played by a miscast Brad Pitt; too tall, too old, conspicuously lacking (in this role) the sort of charisma that it seems to me James must have had. There is no charm, nor swagger, that would keep his fellows in thrall, nor is the character shown to have any of the capriciousness or barely concealed menace that, for instance, Tommy has in Goodfellas. Oh, we’re told that he does, numerous times, but we’re never shown it. Which brings us on to the film’s greatest flaw: the narration.

I’ve made my general distaste for narration in film clear a number of times, though by no means is it a blanket aversion (I actually really like it in another Deakins-shot film, The Shawshank Redemption): it can be fitting at times, depending on the style and story structure. But in Assassination it is a textbook demonstration of the wrongs of “tell, don’t show”. How much this owes to the book I don’t know, but it seems that writer/director Dominik’s intention was to make this have something of the flavour of a Ken Burns documentary, with a regular voiceover explaining where James and the members of the gang were and had been, and often what they were thinking. Towards the end we are even told what Jesse James’ looks meant. Brad Pitt has a face. I’ve definitely seen it. Perhaps let his face do that?

The narration is also full of dull and irrelevant detail, while seeming to build towards the day of his death, but this wasn’t a momentous, meaningful date like 22nd November 1963. What isn’t in the narration is also pretty lacklustre, with no insight into what makes James tick. It cries out for some of the paranoia displayed by, to mention Goodfellas again, Robert De Niro’s Jimmy Conway post-Lufthansa robbery.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford does have one performance I actually like, which is Casey Affleck’s mumbly, slightly creepy turn as Bob Ford (even though he, too, is a decade too old for the role). The change from sycophantic hero worshipper to fearful betrayer works much better than any other character, but unfortunately serves to highlight how underserved the rest of a cast that includes Sam Rockwell, Sam Shepard, Zooey Deschanel and Jeremy Renner is, though Garret Dillahunt does do a pretty good “shifty and terrified”.

This is the film I watched last for this episode, and I think by that point I had come to take Deakins brilliance for granted as I didn’t feel quite so impressed by the photography as I felt I should be. There are, though, a few standout moments, including his incredible lighting of a night-time train robbery, illuminated largely just by handheld lanterns and a massive light on the front of the locomotive. The landscape shots are, as you would expect, striking and expertly-composed, and there are some frames within frames that call to mind the films of John Ford, but the lesson I take from this is that even the most fantastic imagery can’t make up for a film so lacking otherwise. We didn’t want to make this an episode just about Deakins and the Coens (and we could have), but No Country for Old Men came out this same year, and we could have watched that instead. Quel dommâge.


Sicario, In Which Scott Regrets His Choice Of Film To Watch The Week Before Heading Back To The North East Of Mexico.

In Sicario, from another frequent Roger Deakins collaborator Denis Villeneuve, we’re introduced to Emily Blunt’s young FBI agent Kate Mercer and her younger partner, Daniel Kaluuya’s Reggie Wayne, as they undertake a raid on a home that’s suspected of holding suspects in a kidnapping case. This soon takes turns both disgusting and fatal, as they uncover that it’s being used as a dumping ground for victims of drug traffickers, their bodies left in cavity walls to rot, and booby trapped, which sees a member of their squad killed.

While this situation is given the gravity it deserves, Mercer and Wayne reflect that similar sorts of cases are happening with a depressing increase in frequency and their efforts do not seem to be making much impact. So, when given the opportunity to join a task force charged with curtailing the activities of the Mexican drug cartels on USA soil, she accepts.

It’s no surprise that this un-named, cloak and dagger outfit is being headed up by an Agency man, in this case Josh Brolin’s Matt Graver. Matt seems amiable enough, although being as he is employed by the CIA you are always left wondering exactly how he will stab people in the back, rather than if he will stab people in the back.

Graver’s team appears to be composed mainly of Special Forces operatives, which should give some indication of how things are expected to go, supplemented as required by FBI or US Marshals to give the barest sheen of legal legitimacy to their nod-and-a-wink sanctioned activities. There’s also room for the odd special advisor, such as Benicio Del Toro’s mysterious Alejandro, who I’m sure is on the up and up. Nothing exudes trustworthiness more than not revealing your surname.

And so they go, trying to loosen the cartel’s stranglehold on the Mexican border towns and generally shake things up a bit, with Kate refusing the backseat role she’s been given and getting rather more involved than was perhaps intended. This has the adjunct effect of the cartels’ painting a target on her back, which of course effects Kate’s private life, and her physical and mental security.

Saying much more about the plot specifics won’t add much to the review, but in general it’s more concerned with the friction between doing what’s effective and what’s legal, and almost all of the interpersonal conflict comes from these differences in ideology and how these, or if these, can come into balance.

All of which sounds much drier than I’d intended, especially as Sicario pulls off so many moments of extreme tension. Much like director Denis Villeneuve’s previous Prisoners, it mines dark subject matter to create believable human reactions, and is as well characterised as anything you could hope to see in a multiplex. And as it turns out, having some understanding of character helps the tension when they are thrown into danger.

Being on the frontline of this situation does provide ample opportunity for danger, and there’s two outstanding set-piece examples of ratcheting up tension that I’m reluctant to even vaguely detail in case it proves the mildest of spoilers, but they are real nail-biting stuff.

Deakins captures the dusty, Western feel that the script occasionally evokes as the Rule of Law shakes a little, and the Way of the Gun threatens to replace it. The shots of the high desert are suitably bleak, but it’s probably the shots capturing the shots in the border tunnels that’s the high point – and in retrospect, useful prototyping for 1917’s trenches,

Special mention must also be made of the pounding, oppressive score from Johann Johannsson, which provides effective backup to the threats on screen.

So, technically and dramatically Sicario puts very few feet wrong, and still comes very highly recommended, although if you’re better off pretending that the needless sequel does not exist. Also, subtitlers – learn how to spell Monterrey.


Thanks to everyone who has got in touch with us on this, or said kind words about the show – it’s all very much appreciated.

If you’ve been affected by any of the issues discussed today, please hit us up on Twitter (@fudsonfilm), on Facebook (, or email us at If you want to receive our podcast on a regular basis, please add our feed to your podcasting software of choice, or subscribe on iTunes. If you could see your way clear to leaving a review on iTunes, we’d be eternally grateful, but we won’t blame you if you don’t. We’ll be back with you soon with something fresh, but until then, take care of yourself, and each other.