When it comes to drama, it's all about tension, and when it comes to tension, it's all about structure.
One of the most tense scenes of all time is the gridlock scene from Denis Villeneuve's Sicario, which features FBI agent Kate Macer rolling through a cartel-controlled Mexican border town with a convoy of government task force agents working to bring down a Mexican drug lord. But what is it that makes this such a nerve-racking scene? Well, CineFix breaks it down literally moment by moment in the video below, and also provides an infographic that makes it easy to see how Villeneuve structured it.
There's no one way to go about constructing a tense scene, but there certainly are a few factors that need to be set in place—because of, you know, human physiology.
Creating tension is all about putting pressure on your audience and letting them writhe in anticipation, and the only way pressure builds up is over time. This creates a couple of obstacles to maneuver: deciding how long to build the tension in the scene, as well as how to let the tension to rise and fall throughout the scene.
Wax and wane
The gridlock scene in Sicario is over 13 minutes long—admittedly it's a long setup, but the reason why it never gets boring is because it waxes and wanes. In other words, the level of tension increases and decreases in intervals so as to not let the audience be able to anticipate exactly when the big payoff is going to occur. Perhaps they breathe a sigh of relief when they make it to the Mexican prison after being diverted, and maybe again when they cross the border, but all of that relief goes out the window once they see the gridlock up ahead.
Or should I say payoffs? The gridlock scene is full of payoffs, but they vary in intensity depending on the level of tension that has been building up before it occurs. Take the final payoff (or climax) for example. Near the end of the scene, the standoff reaches an apex when one of the cartel members reaches for a gun and the task force agents shoot them to smithereens. However, that's not the final payoff—and this is where Villeneuve's mastery really reveals itself.
The shooting at the end of the standoff marks the climax of the main external conflict of the scene: eliminating the enemy threat. However, there is also an internal conflict within Kate Macer that hasn't been resolved—she has to decide whether or not what she and the task force are doing is ethical. As she watches in horror as the gunfight is going on in broad daylight in the middle of gridlocked traffic, she asks, "What the f*** are we doing?" It seems as though her question is actually her answer and her internal conflict has been resolved—that is until a cartel member shoots at her from the rear of the car and she returns fire, killing him. This marks the climax of Macer's internal conflict; she screams an expletive, which mirrors her previous line: a statement that is actually a question.
Here is CineFix's infographic detailing every moment of the gridlock scene so you can see exactly how Villeneuve orchestrated this incredibly intense scene.