The first thing you notice is the quiet. You forget how crucial, how instrumental (pun, I admit it, intended) a movie’s score is, until you barely hear one. Would Jaws have been nearly as scary without those thumping beats? Is Darth Vader as imposing and intimidating without John Williams’s triumphant, lordly intro?
Thrillers and horror in particular make use of music’s impact – telling you when to feel worried (that crescendo of anticipatory sound), and when to realize it’s over through the film’s score. In fact, the only silence you usually get in these film genres is that heartbeat before something attacks, the crescendo and then the hush before the blow.
Yes, the Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men does have a score – it says so in the credits (and it’s apparently composed by Carter Burwell, a Coen staple) – but I can’t for the life of me think where it was. Fortunately for my sanity, I’m not the only one; The New Yorker calls the score “little more than a fitful murmur.”
The lack of sound does something both freeing and frightfully disturbing: it makes you feel for yourself. The score doesn’t tell you when the implacable, psychopathic killer Anton Chigurh (a darkly humorous and impassive, walking undead Javier Bardem, with that now infamous head of hair) is going to attack – there is no build up, no musical signals to warn you about what is going to happen. Just like Chigurh’s odes to Two-Face (he too sometimes flips a coin to decide a victim’s fate), just like life, the musical score, or lack thereof, lets you feel the full impact of randomness, helplessness, and the petrifying nature of an unknown future, whether that future is one second or one lifetime away.
The score also has an accomplice in No Country‘s dialogue and cinematography. There is no real shouting, no screaming for blood or mercy. Lots of grunting though, accompanied by some knowing smiles and measured talk. There are also barely any camera shots that anticipate what’s going to happen, no panning out to show you that there is probably something or someone lurking just out of sight, in that dark corner of the garage. It shows you what’s happening, the faces of the people involved and the lifeless, stretching scenery around them, and that’s about it. What comes, comes.
And that’s the soul of this disquieting (sorry, just couldn’t stop myself) adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s critically acclaimed novel of the same name. It’s quiet, deliberate, direct, unflinching; an unguided tour of flat, dispassionate reality. Well, almost unguided, anyway. The closest thing you get to a guide is the sheriff, played with deep sadness and one eyebrow raised by Tommy Lee Jones. But even as he narrates portions of the tale, the sheriff, on the trail of Chigurh and that killer’s own target Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), doesn’t know what’s coming any more than you do. As he himself says, he’s “outmatched.”
The story of a man, Moss, who stumbles across a drug deal gone bad (it’s so bad even the dog is dead) and thinks he can get away with its left-behind spoils of 2 million bucks, No Country coolly states that this is the way things are, or can be, take it or leave it. As Moss runs from Chigurh’s relentless hired killer, you sometimes think he’s in (way) over his head, but sometimes not. You are sometimes sure Chigurh is going to attack with that cattle gun, and sometimes not. You sometimes think Moss and his wife Carla Jean (Kelly MacDonald) will maybe, just maybe get to enjoy the money in the end, but often not. It’s bleak, but it’s not apologetic. It just is.
Which is why the appearance of Woody Harrelson’s cocky hired gun (Carson Wells) in a sleek, big city office, sitting before Stephen Root’s sleek, big city desk (he probably has 50 red staplers in there) seems so out of place. Wait, is this a movie again? Nothing against Woody, or certainly cult fave Root as a drug businessman, but their polished Hollywood demeanor, with Woody’s cool drawl, feels like a whole different movie. From the silent tumbleweeds of reality to the glossy halls of a Hollywood drug man is a bit of an unsettling leap for this darkly murmuring film.