My daughter, Christina, founder of ChristinaChitwood.com, wrote a fascinating essay on No Country for Old Men for her film class at Sheffield Hallam University in England. She thoroughly examines many different facets of the film including archetypal evil. Read Christina Chitwood’s following essay for insights about archetypal evil.
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No Country for Old Men (2007, Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen) is a study in contrasts: between light and shadow, between silence and explosions of sound, between good and evil. The opening establishing shot of the glaring west Texas desert contrasts with the shadows and night scenes dominant in much of the movie. The silence of a movie almost devoid of music contrasts with the explosions of gunshots. The goodness and morality of a Texas sheriff contrasts with a chilling hitman who symbolises archetypal evil.
Throughout the film, camera shots and sounds were painstakingly created to emphasise those contrasts. The resulting melding of visuals, sound, and message became a film which earned Oscar awards for best film, best director, best adapted screenplay, and best supporting actor (i.e., Javier Bardem, who played the villain, Anton Chirgurh) and Oscar nominations for film editing, cinematography, sound editing, and sound mixing (‘Full list of Oscar winners and nominations’ 2008).
Faithfully adapted from Cormac McCarthy’s novel (2005), No Country for Old Men is a multi-dimensional film which cannot be easily categorised as one particular genre. Based in West Texas, some identify it as a Western (Pizzello and Oppenheimer 2007, p31) or even ‘comic turnaround of a classic Western plot’ (Braudy 2008, p10). Others classify it as film noir characterised by protagonist Llewellyn Moss (played by Josh Brolin) finding illegal drug money and spending the rest of the movie fighting against the consequences of his decision to take the money (Braudy 2008, p10). It could be labelled a horror film with its unstoppable, seemingly inhuman archetypal evil personified as ‘the most evil character in cinema history since 1955 and Mitchum in The Night of the Hunter’ (Lumholdt 2007, p96). The film has even been identified as a
modern, ‘genre-fiction’ rendition of classical tragedy. We have all of the constituent
structural parts: a monologue/prologue; an actorchorus or amoibaion, who comments
on the action mostly from a distance (i.e. Sheriff Bell); an episodic story paced by
Bell’s ‘choral’ reflections/stasimons; and even a multi-layered, epiphanic exodus
(Johnson 2008, p213).
The film’s genre was discussed in the DVD bonus feature ‘The Making of No Country for Old Men.’ Directors Joel and Ethan Coen themselves see the film as a chase or horror film, whereas the executive producer, Robert Graf, sees it as a crime story, Western (‘because of the terrain and setting’), and somewhat of a noir. Probably the most colourful comments were made by the actors. Tommy Lee Jones, who played Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, described the film:
‘I’d say it’s a road movie . . . Or it’s a horror film. A lot of killing goes on . . . There’s a good deal of humour in it, so you could call it a comedy. . . . I’d say it’s a horror comedy chase.’ Kelly MacDonald, who plays Carla Jean Moss, stated: ‘I think it’s a Coen brothers film. They’re their own genre.’ That said, possibly the most accepted and understood genre for No Country for Old Men would simply be that of thriller (Arendt 2008; Fulton 2008).
Although a chase thriller, both film and original novel are slow paced, with the film’s moral character, Sheriff Bell, often described as ‘laconic’ (Brown 2008, p9). Bell’s voice-over narration provides an undulating rhythm which enhances the West Texas atmosphere. During absences of narration, painstakingly detailed movements slow the pace. At times in the film, however, that slow pace is replaced with a flurry of activity, both visually and aurally.
Emphasising the suspenseful nature of the thriller, the music in No Country for Old Men is most noticeable through its absence. The suspense is intensified and amplified because there is no music for the majority of the film. According to Skip Livesay, the sound editor:
Suspense thrillers in Hollywood are traditionally done almost entirely with
music. The idea here was to remove the safety net that lets the audience feel
like they know what’s going to happen. I think it makes the movie much more
suspenseful. You’re not guided by the score and so you lose that comfort
zone (Lim 2008).
The film’s composer, Carter Burwell, collaborated with sound editor Skip Livesay, sound designer Craig Berkey, production sound mixer Peter Kurland, and foley mixer Greg Orloff in creating a film in which the music would only ‘emanate from the landscape’ (Lim 2008).
It could be argued that a film with an absence of music will diminish the intensity of the images portrayed on screen. In many cases of film scoring, the allegro to prestissimo tempi in a thriller or similar genre can produce increased adrenaline in the viewer, generating an intense reaction to the connecting music and images. The same effect can be produced with largo to moderato tempi, which in the case of a film like No Country for Old Men, would emphasis the slow, detailed intensity of the film. The variation of rallentando and accelerando tempi, as well as the basic dynamic range using crescendo transitioning into diminuendo, can develop an unsettling mood for the viewer if used for this effect. However, the absence of music in No Country for Old Men is possibly its greatest genius. The silence coupled with the imagery’s slow-paced but intense precision creates a forceful and terrorising piece of cinema. It is accurate to say that ‘the featureless score . . . focuses our experience of this silence. The composer’s self-muting is a bold strategy that refuses musical scripture and embraces psychoacoustic power’ (Brophy 2008, p16).
In place of a typical score for No Country for Old Men, ambient sounds are emphasised and develop a certain ‘sense’ of music. The ambient sounds could be described as the film’s ‘sonic orchestra’ (Brophy 2008, p16). The noises of the wind create an uneasy and eerie feel throughout the film, developing a sense of uncertainty. The beeping of a tracking device creates tension as the hitman nears his prey. Sounds such as gunshots or the tracking device’s beeping could also be classified as emphatic sounds (Lim 2008). The most shocking emphatic sound in the film is the use of a cattle air gun by Chigurh to kill his victims with its stinger when the air leaves the gun and contact is made with the target. The sound of the cattle air gun throughout the film and the buzzing of flies around the bodies at the scene of the botched drug deal both provide a leitmotif of death.
Cinematography for No Country for Old Men focused on both visual and auditory impressions through the Coen brothers’ unique approach to their films. For each film, Joel Coen makes a list of camera shots and Ethan Coen creates thumbnail sketches. Then storyboard artist J. Todd Anderson might make 1,000 drawings for a movie after a series of meetings with the Coens. Anderson asserts that most current movies use storyboard drawings for important scenes only, whereas the Coen brothers use storyboards for the entire film (Price 2008).
Anderson’s storyboard drawings, illustrating an article by Linda Price, show the consideration given to the blend of visual and aural. For instance, a drawing shows a wide-angle low tracking shot of cars from across the street along with the word ‘BLAM’ and visuals of a gunshot exploding as Moss shoots at Chigurgh, who dives behind a car. The next storyboard shows a medium close-up tracking shot of Moss’s lower leg and foot as he walks towards the car (Price 2008).
Throughout the film, a variety of camera shots are used. Probably the most noticeable camera shot is the use of the high-angle shot or God’s eye shot. The movie’s first shocking scene uses high-angle shots and straight-on shots as Chigurh strangles a deputy sheriff. At the same time, each sound is intensified or amplified as the only sounds are shoes squeaking on the linoleum, shoes pounding on the linoleum, and choking sounds. Then a high-angle shot shows the deputy sheriff’s lower legs and boots on the scuff-marked linoleum from the recent fight. Lower legs and feet are shown in camera shots throughout the film, possibly indicating the path a person takes. Another high-angle shot shows Chigurh taking off his handcuffs and washing his bloody hands in the sink and is uniquely doubled through the use of a mirror. The abundant use of high-angle shots might be a reflection of Chigurh’s belief in fate—that life and death belong to destiny.
The next shocking scene begins with the wind in the background when Chigurh stops a man by the side of the road. A medium two-shot of Chigurh and the man transition to a close-up of Chigurh’s hand with the cattle air gun to a medium close-up two-shot to a close-up tracking shot emphasizing the cattle air gun on the man’s forehead to the stinger of the air gun shot and the visual of the blood slowly dripping down the man’s face before he drops to the ground. Symbolically, the man stands waiting to be killed like cattle, unaware of the deadliness of evil. The sound of the man dropping again punctuates death.
Red blood contrasts with the brown desert to create contrasts in colour. After an iris shot of antelope seen through the scope of a hunting rifle and an extreme close-up of Moss setting his shot, the red blood from a wounded antelope is shown against the brown grass from a high-angle shot. Later, the blood of dead men at the drug scene contrasts with the desert landscape around them. Similarly, a medium canted shot of the inside of a truck with a dead man’s leg askew accents the red blood on the brown seat. Utter silence dominates as Moss views the inside of the truck. The only movement is that of the keys in the ignition being moved by the wind. Only as Moss turns away from the truck does the wind sound return. The wind crescendos from pianissimo to forte and dust blows around Moss’s feet as he walks away from the trucks and pans the prairie with his binoculars.
Silence and sound again show contrast and build tension. A low-angle long shot of Moss standing by a tree holding a satchel full of money accentuates a death scene by showing two trees and Moss as the only living things in the scene. The horizontal legs and recumbent posture of a dead man and the rocky ground indicate death. As Moss takes the money off the hill, thunder claps in the background, a dramatic foreshadowing of a storm coming physically and metaphorically in Moss’s life.
Another key scene creates extreme tension through a silent soundtrack. A sense of foreboding is developed from the hotel room lit only by the bedside lamp when Moss finds a transmitter in the satchel of money. The viewer is absorbed into the experience of listening in anticipation as a faint scraping sound is heard, Moss dials the front desk on the phone, and the phone rings without answer. A medium camera shot shows Moss holding the shotgun and turning off the lamp. The viewer’s eyes are drawn to the slight glow from the outside light shining through the window and a silhouette of Moss sitting on the bed. Soft footsteps are heard during a close-up shot of the transmitter with its red light flashing. The receiver beeps faintly, then crescendos and accelerates as footsteps near the door. The slow and determined footsteps and crescendo and accelerando of the receiver intensify the ominous feel. From Moss’s point of view, two shadows of feet show in the light under the door in a high-angle shot of the door bottom. The cocking of Moss’s shotgun is heard and a close-up of Moss’s face reveals uncertainty. A medium camera shot of the door and doorknob accentuates light and shadows. After the shadows under the door disappear, the viewer joins Moss in straining to hear the squeaking of a light bulb being unscrewed in the hallway just before the light goes out underneath the door. A zooming close-up focuses on Moss’s face as he sits on the bed with the shotgun. Then a tilting camera shot goes up the door.
The silence is broken with the stinger of the lock being shot out by the cattle air gun, hitting Moss who makes a pained sound. A flurry of movement and cacophony of sound occur with the door creaking, shotgun blast going through the door, footsteps running, satchel dropping on the sidewalk, Moss jumping through the window, glass shattering, broken glass tinkling to the sidewalk, and Moss falling on the sidewalk. Together, the silence and ambient sounds in the scene create more tension than would have been possible with a musical soundtrack.
Even with end credits, there are only 16 minutes of music in No Country for Old Men (Lim 2008). Much of those 16 minutes is a drone:
The nocturnal driving scenes are occasions for the composer Mr. Burwell’s near-
subliminal drone to creep into the sound mix. ‘The idea was to use the music to
deepen the tension in some of these transitional scenes, when there’s not much going
on,’ he said. ‘The sounds are snuck in underneath the wind or the sound of a car. When
the wind or car goes away, the sound is left behind, but you never hear it appear.’
Mr. Burwell found that most musical instruments didn’t fit with the minimalist sound
sculpture he had in mind, so he used singing bowls, standing metal bells traditionally
employed in Buddhist meditation practice that produce a sustained tone when rubbed.
For one of the few interior scenes with score — Chigurh menacing a service-station
owner with a fateful coin flip — he tuned the music’s swelling hum to the 60-hertz
frequency of a refrigerator (Lim 2008).
Using Aaron Copland’s five areas of film music, the use of the drone would ‘provide the underpinning for the theatrical buildup of a scene and then round it off with a sense of finality’ (Prendergast 1992). The drone’s eerie quality intensifies the drama and suspense in each of the scenes in which it is used.
The one other instance of music during the body of the film is produced by a mariachi band in a Mexican border town. According to Copland’s five areas, the Mexican music would ‘create a more convincing atmosphere of time and place’ (Prendergast 1992). Approximately 30 seconds of Mexican music begin as a fade-in of music as the wounded Moss crosses the border into Mexico at night. The music corresponds with a medium long shot of a silhouetted Moss walking towards the yellow-lit Mexican border. The scene then transitions into a mariachi band with accordion player, two guitarists, and a singer playing lively Mexican music as Moss awakens on stone steps in the morning. The allegro tempo, staccato articulation, and forte dynamics provide a stark contrast to Moss’s bleak predicament. The music stops as Moss awakens to give money to the mariachi band.
The final piece of music, played during the white-on-black end credits, provides the film’s ‘sense of finality’ (Prendergast 1992). The music begins with maracas, then a variety of percussion instruments. The end-credit words change with the beat, synchronising image and music. Dissonant melodies predominate throughout the Latin-flavoured music. Syncopated rhythms are used at a tempo that is primarily andante with some moderato. The music begins at a piano dynamic, then crescendos to forte. The articulation is legato with some vibrato near the end. A guitar with open strings enters, and then a guitar run on bass strings is heard. Chords and bass arpeggio-like runs enter, combined with dissonant treble notes and chords. Then descending bass runs with chords are heard at the end. The dissonant piece of music leaves the viewer unsettled at the end of a haunting film.
The haunting and unsettling images and sounds of the film are echoes of the original novel. McCarthy alludes to the End Times (the Book of Revelation in the Bible) and the beast (a re-emergence of a virulent archetypal evil) through the numbers of the motel and hotel rooms in which Moss stays. At the end of the novel, Loretta is reading the Book of Revelation and will let her husband, Sheriff Bell, know if it ‘had anything to say about the shape things was takin’ (McCarthy 2005, p304). Revelation chapter 13, verse 8 (room 138), referring to the beast, states: ‘All on earth will worship it. . . . ‘ (The New English Bible 1976, p324). Chapter 13 of Revelation, in general, talks about the rising of the beast. Revelation chapter 2, verse 13 (room 213) says, ‘I know where you live; it is the place where Satan has his throne. . . . ‘ (The New English Bible 1976, p315). Revelation chapter 11, verse 7 (room 117) says: ‘. . . the beast that comes up from the abyss will wage war upon them and will defeat and kill them.’ (The New English Bible 1976, p322). Room 117 is the motel room in which Moss dies.
This archetypal evil is a recurring theme throughout not only the novel but the film, evidenced in both sound and image. Two-shots and medium close-ups of Loretta and Sheriff Bell talking across the table at the film’s end provide a singular glimpse of hope. The only feasible way of dealing with the archetypal evil evident in the film is inferred through the second of two dreams Sheriff Bells narrates to Loretta:
But the second one it was like we [Bell and his father] was both back in older
times and I was on horseback goin through the mountains of a night. Goin
through this pass in the mountains. It was cold and there was snow on the
ground and he rode past me and kept on going. Never said nothing. He just
rode on past and he had this blanket wrapped around him and he had his head
down and when he rode past I seen he was carryin fire in a horn the way people
used to do and I could see the horn from the light inside of it. About the color
of the moon. And in the dream I knew that he was goin on ahead and that he
was fixin to make a fire somewhere out there in all that dark and all that cold
and I knew that whenever I got there he would be there. And then I woke up
(McCarthy 2005, p309).
The meaning of this dream is similar to the meaning of a dream Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung had:
‘I was making slow and painful headway . . . keeping this little light alive. . . . I knew too that this little light was my consciousness, the only light I have’ (Jung, 1963, pp87-88.)
So the light (fire) in the sheriff’s dream is also the light of consciousness. By ending the movie with this dream and the statement ‘I woke up’ (that is, I became conscious), the author suggests that the way to deal with this new, virulent form of archetypal evil is to become conscious of its nature and behaviours. Only then can we keep the night from extinguishing the light.
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Michael in Cannes says
Impressive. It’s easy to forget how much thought goes into the (better) films out there. In many cases, the directors of photography and sound design will also tell the story in their way, creating narrative layers.
Thank you for your kind comment on Christina’s film review, Michael. As you suggest, a good film has multiple layers of meaning.
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