, which is currently playing in general release, is one of the most formally accomplished things at the multiplexes, a triumph of cinematography, lighting, production, and sound design. Taken together, these qualities establish an unsettling atmosphere that goes a long way in giving the movie its power. Sicario tells the story of a group of federal agents who adopt questionable tactics to bring down a Mexican drug cartel. As director Denis Villeneuve puts it in a recent interview with American Cinematographer, the film is less about cartel violence than how the United States has responded to it, entering a moral gray zone that obscures any good intentions our country may have had in fighting the war on drugs. Sicario‘s atmosphere makes that gray zone palpable—it evokes a state of queasiness that makes one uncertain of how to respond.

The mood takes hold right away, as a steady, tribal-sounding drum beat slowly rises on the soundtrack during the company credits. This beat will recur throughout the film, suggesting that a primitive, foreboding force lays just beneath the onscreen action. (Villeneuve adds to this feeling with aerial views of the desert, which recall the opening shots of The Shining and hint at some evil presence in the landscape itself.) Johann Johannsson’s score then brings in the low strings, which swell in ominous tones as we’re introduced to the heroine, FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt). These tones sound like something you might hear in a horror movie just before a monster appears, and sure enough the movie introduces a horrific image soon after the music cue. Kate and her team discover dozens of mutilated dead bodies in the Arizona house they’re searching—evidence of the cartel violence they feel powerless to combat.

In the scenes that follow, Villeneuve and his sound team create the sense that the violence is getting too close for the characters to bear. When people talk, there’s typically no music on the soundtrack, and the hum of whatever space they’re in is often amplified. Certain little noises—like the sound of a fluorescent bulb powering on—get amplified as well, and this has a subtle, destabilizing effect, as though the volume knobs of real life are turned to the wrong levels. It also gives added weight to the pauses between lines—Villeneuve excels at creating a sense of nervous anticipation, infusing momentum into scenes that might appear talky on the page. He creates the sense that a horrifying image could enter the scene at any moment, as it did during that opening sequence.

Benicio Del Toro in Sicario

Sicario takes place in what cinematographer Roger Deakins (who’s shot almost all of the Coen brothers’ films since Barton Fink) calls a “grungy yellow world,” defined by unflattering sunlight and unnatural-looking, fluorescent-lit interiors. It’s remarkable what Deakins and his lighting team do with the yellow-beige spectrum, using subtle gradations of light to invoke a world where moral positions are always changing. Consider a scene of an interdepartmental briefing in a cavernous meeting room. Villeneuve and Deakins shoot from a low angle so that the fluorescent bulbs in the ceiling appear in the frame. The soft light feels somewhat off and the multitude of bulbs look overpowering. Kate is learning more about the secret mission to which she’s been recruited, but the viewer gets no greater sense of certainty. (The color scheme of the lighting is mirrored in that of the costume design. Alejandro, the former prosecutor played by Benicio Del Toro, who’s the movie’s most morally ambiguous character, wears a beige jacket for much of the movie’s first half, and the look makes him blend in all too well with the eerie lighting.)

The extended climax of Sicario takes place in the middle of the night, and this passage feels less ominous than the ones that take place during the day. It’s as though the darkness, ironically, brings a sense of clarity to the mission—no longer are we in the troubling yellow of day, but the resolute blackness of night. The operation that Kate has joined enacts merciless violence in the pursuit of its targets, effectively fighting fire with fire. In a sense, the movie has prepared us for this revelation all along, the queasiness of the bright scenes alerting viewers to bad news ahead.