After due consideration, allow me to present my favorite film of all time. Released on November 21, 2007, it follows the intertwining stories of three men. There’s Llewellyn Moss, played affably by Josh Brolin, who steals a briefcase containing $2 million dollars from the site of a drug deal gone wrong. A Vietnam veteran, the central question surrounding his story is if he can use his intelligence and developed sense of cool in horrific situations to escape the man pursuing him. That man is the mercenary Anton Chigurh, portrayed by Javier Bardem.
Chigurh is a dark, violent spirit roaming the dried-out wastelands of 1980 west Texas. His hunt for Moss and the briefcase leaves a trail of blood for Tommy Lee Jones’ world-weary Sheriff Ed Tom Bell to passively follow.
Welcome to the quiet, bloody world of No Country for Old Men.
Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, or the Coen Brothers as they are more commonly monikered, this film is considered by a large number of their fans to be their masterpiece.
Adapted directly from the 2005 Cormac McCarthy novel of the same name, it is a tale of dispassionate violence. The opening monologue (credit to YouTuber Andrew Lewis) from Jones’ Sheriff Bell lets us know this from the get-go. Reciting the story of a man he sent to the electric chair who’s act of killing a teenaged girl was painted to be a “crime of passion” by news outlets. However, the man confessed to Bell that he had no feelings for the girl at all. He just felt like killing someone. This makeshift sermon by the Sheriff states what I believe to be the theme of the movie: There is no deeper meaning to be found in death or murder. That’s what makes it horrifying.
It’s far from the first story to plunge into this type of theme. Film directors have been exploring the dark elements of human nature going all the way back to the unsettling silent films that crawled from the German expressionist movement. And that’s not even discussing the realms of theater and literature. So what is it that sets No Country apart from these past works? What has it done that makes it so special? To uncover that, we have to discuss the relationship between music and film.
Motion pictures have utilized music since their initial conception. The aforementioned German expressionist films, for example, utilized dark, low humming string music played live in the theater to create an uneasy atmosphere for the audience. Horror movies today use similar tactics through their soundtracks. This is where we find the uniqueness of this wonderful little Coen Brothers flick. There is no music in No Country for Old Men.
None, you ask? None.
So just why did the Coens choose this approach? Why no haunting synth theme used whenever Chigurh appeared, for example? The answer, as is the case for every artistic decision used in this magnificent film, lies once again in that overarching theme of the truth of violent crime. I don’t believe this movie is meant to be cinematic, and that it’s instead meant to be honest. In the real world, there is no song playing when a real Mexican cartel member slaughters a real man’s real wife and child in front of him. There’s only blood. Watching Chigurh do what he does–seamlessly, without compassion, and with the only accompanying sound being whatever desert ambience the boom mike picked up–makes him real to us. And he’s all the more terrifying because of it.
However, there is also a more practical reason for the absence of music used here. Since music is used to set a tone or a mood for a particular scene, oftentimes the audience can guess what is coming based on the track. In modern horror films a gradually building single synth or string note can be a clue that the monster is about to appear, or that a “jump scare” is coming. This can also be the case if music has been used in the film, and it suddenly ceases. What the Coens have done here with an absence of ANY music is left us with a film where anything can happen at any time. This video here displays a violent scene (very much so, so WARNING) from the film with the use of fan-made music added in (credit goes to YouTuber pendecho911). Does it enhance the scene? In a traditional cinematic way, perhaps so. But what we lose with this is the unpredictable nature of Anton Chigurh’s character. Scary music is playing, so of course the bad guy is about to kill someone. Now, see the same sequence again here without the use of music (thanks to YouTuber Odin Reaver for the upload), and find how much more jarring the sudden shift to brutal violence becomes.
Again, it’s a GRAPHIC SCENE so be warned before you watch it
The Coens have been lauded by critics and casual moviegoers for decades now but this film is, to date, their only effort which has garnered them an Academy Award for Best Director. They’ve always had a style unique to themselves, but this might be the film where their choices paid off the best.
Soundtracks can be great additions to films. They are a part of the movie industry for a reason, after all. We wouldn’t know names like John Williams, Ennio Morricone, and Howard Shore if this wasn’t the case. But what this movie proves is that soundtracks are not always necessary.
No Country uses the lack of music to create an unsettling atmosphere, and it is not the first movie to utilize this tactic for this purpose. Some other famous films that have done this include Fritz Lang’s M, Robert Zemeckis’ Cast Away, and Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon. But the one I want to go into detail on is Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 horror flick The Birds. Hitchcock famously used music to enhance another famous horror movie of his: the iconic and ever-influential serial killer story Psycho. To create a successful horror movie, however, one has to create the illusion for the audience member that they should feel danger. This is easily done with movies about deranged murderers like Norman Bates, but for a movie where the danger is randomly aggressive flocks of birds it becomes a little trickier. The lack of music in Birds allows the audience to easier accept the absurdity of the events depicted on-screen, and subsequently be scared by them.
The Coens take this same approach here. Chigurh is, like Norman Bates, a violent psychopath. Unlike Bates, however, Chigurh is depicted as an unstoppable killing machine to the point of near-illogicality. It’s questioned at one point in the film by another character is he is even human. Giving him a musical theme would’ve turned him into a flesh-and-blood replica of the Terminator, and risked changing the story from the vexing look at human nature it was meant to be into a run-of-the-mill action thriller. Go back and remember Sheriff Bell’s opening monologue. Chigurh isn’t a criminal with goals. It doesn’t matter why he pursues Llewelyn Moss, or why he murders nearly everyone he interacts with. That isn’t what this story is about. We aren’t here to see a climactic battle between the forces of good and evil, with a triumphant victory for the heroes. Instead, the Coens and Cormac McCarthy are simply asking us to merely be observers to the darkest components of humanity.
And music would have just distracted us from that.