×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

‘Sicario’s’ Ominous Score Aims to Match Film’s Brutality

Last year, Icelandic composer Johann Johannsson earned an Oscar nomination for his lush, classically inspired music for the Stephen Hawking biopic, “The Theory of Everything” — a precise, lyrical score driven by strings and piano, and accented by harp, woodwinds and the fairy-tale chimes of a music box. It is by turns as delicate as a glass figurine and as rich as a Renaissance tapestry.

But with “Sicario,” Denis Villeneuve’s drug cartel thriller that opens Sept. 18 in limited release, Johannsson goes in the opposite direction, aiming more for sound design than melody. It’s an ominous, percussive work that reflects the grisly reality of its subject matter, which involves a rogue U.S. government task force intent on disrupting the Mexican drug trade with its own brand of shock and awe.

At times the soundtrack can have the effect of a pulse rate gone mad, or, as Johannsson puts it, “like the throbbing heart of a beast charging at you.” And save for a few reflective, even mellifluous passages, the score rarely lets up.

“It has this kind of brooding brutality to it,” explains the composer, speaking by phone from Berlin, where he’s lived for the past three years. “Denis and I wanted the music to be like violence almost, to have this intense, insistent, relentless quality.”

Johannsson used a 65-piece orchestra with an emphasis on drums (mostly tom-toms and military snare drums, but with the snare turned off), strings and an unusually large (for the composer) brass section — all on the low end of the register. “This idea of working with low percussion and low strings and low brass was intended to create a sound coming from below,” Johannsson says. “It’s almost the sound of the drug tunnels that are featured in the story.”

In the liner notes for the soundtrack, Villeneuve states that he wanted Johannsson’s score to feel like “a threat, coming from under your feet, deep under the surface of the scorched earth of the Chihuahua desert.”

A good portion of the music is distorted, such as one scene where the sound of whirring helicopter blades builds to a crackling crescendo using heavily processed percussion. That violent pounding becomes a recurring motif in the film.

But not all of the movie’s music is unsettling. Two tracks on the soundtrack — “Melancholia,” featuring soloist Skuli Sverrisson on six-string bass, and “Desert Music,” a showcase for cellist Hildur Gudnadottir — allow for the kind of quiet, if rueful, beauty one has come to expect from Johannsson.

Although “Melancholia” vaguely evokes  a Spanish guitar motif, Johannsson steered clear of a regional or traditionally Mexican sound. “I don’t like to have very literal or obvious references to places or ethnicity,” he says. “But if you do that in a subtle way, it can work on a very subliminal level.”

Sicario” is the composer’s second collaboration with Villenueve after “Prisoners,” and Johannsson, very much a product of Reykjavik’s avant-garde tradition in terms of his solo work for the concert stage, has already begun sketching out themes for Villenueve’s latest feature, “Story of Your Life,” which just finished principal photography.

Johannsson is also working with fellow rising Icelander Baltasar Kormakur (“Everest”) on a series called “Trapped,” a detective story shot in their home country, set in an isolated fjord plagued by a relentless snowstorm.

Another soundscape may be in the offing.

Popular on Variety

More Artisans

  • Ad Astra

    How 'Ad Astra' Production Crew Created Authentic Look for Brad Pitt Space Drama

    In “Ad Astra,” Brad Pitt’s astronaut Roy McBride crosses the solar system to find and confront his long-lost father, requiring the movie crew to create an authentic-looking future that conveys the theme of traveling long distances to learn the lesson that it’s where you started from that has the most value. “Visually, the aim was [...]

  • Women in Animation Logo

    WIA Partners With Animation Mentor, Toon Boom to Expand Scholarship Program

    Women in Animation has partnered with Animation Mentor and Toon Boom to expand the organization’s WIA Scholarship Program with workshops and software packages. WIA scholarships are given to animation students with a financial need and who demonstrate talent and passion for animation that will lead to a promising career in the field. The Animation Mentor [...]

  • Steven Poster ICG National President

    DP Steven Poster to Receive SOC Lifetime Achievement Award

    Stephen Poster, cinematographer on such classics as “Donnie Darko” and Madonna’s “Like a Prayer,” will receive the Lifetime Achievement Distinguished Service Award from the Society of Camera Operators at a ceremony on Jan. 18, 2020. SOC grants the award to an Individual who has served the community at large and/or the Society through outstanding service [...]

  • Swedes Call for Incentives to Keep

    Swedes Call for Incentives to Keep Potential Runaways at Home

    Horror film “Midsommar” did it last year. A new adaptation of the Swedish classic “The Emigrants” will do it next year. Prestigious productions that could have taken advantage of beautiful Swedish locations and craft expertise continue to run away to foreign locations for lower costs and tax incentives. Despite having a strong film industry creatively [...]

  • Game of Thrones

    Ireland Lures Filmmakers With Locations, Expertise and a 37% Tax Credit

    Few locations on earth can match Ireland’s proverbial 40 shades of green. In addition to its restful hues, the island nation also boasts alluring lakes, rugged windswept coasts, small charming hamlets, rustic farmhouses of aged stone, hilltop castles and breathtaking expanses of wild scrubland. Bustling and modern Dublin, Ireland’s capital, will be the largest English-speaking [...]

  • UNDONE Animated Series Amazon

    How Animated Series 'Undone' Used a Mix of Techniques to Tell the Mind-Bending Tale

    When Kate Purdy wanted to tell a story about the nature of reality, she knew she wanted to play with perception and time, fade in and out of memories and give voice to visions that only her main character could see. And it wasn’t long before the executive producer and co-creator of Amazon’s new series, “Undone,” [...]

  • John Wick: Chapter 3

    James Cameron, Keanu Reeves Starring in '2nd Unit: Invisible Action Stars' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Rootbeer Films has completed “2nd Unit: Invisible Action Stars” with James Cameron, Keanu Reeves, Mark Wahlberg and Halle Berry, Variety has learned exclusively. The film explores relationships between actors and stunt performers — a topic at the heart of Quentin Tarantino’s recent “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.” Joe Mantegna narrates “2nd Unit: Invisible Action [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content