Sunday, November 25, 2007

Walk Silently and Carry a Big Whatever-the-Hell-That-Thing-is

No Country for Old Men is the most quietly ferocious movie you'll ever see. I can't stop thinking about the brilliant sound design choices by Joel and Ethan Coen that lift the movie from a simple genre exercise into another level of terror and excitement. In the same way Ennio Morricone fashioned a theme out of creaks, drips and cracks for the opening of Once Upon a Time in the West, here we have an entire "score" made out of footsteps, desert wind, breezes through an open window, distant passing trains and simply the sound a man makes when he's contemplating what his next action will be that won't result in his death. All these sounds are heightened because no note (whether dialog or effects) goes wasted, wrapping the viewer in silence and putting us in the same mindset as the characters, where fate seems to be waiting behind the corner.

The sequence that best exemplifies this method is when Llewelyn checks into the second hotel, and tries to assess his possibly fatal situation inside his room. He hears something strange from the front desk, then tries to phone the manager -- with no answer. The next two minutes are nearly silent, save for a couple remote footsteps and Llewelyn's fear of what might be outside his door. There's no dialog, but it's one of the most exciting moments of the movie, as we wait for the action to shift toward Llewelyn or Chigurh at any moment. The masterful sequence one-ups itself as the action shifts outside, with Llewelyn commandeering a man's truck as bullets from Chigurh's suppressed pistol attack the vehicle like hellfire from some unearthly beast. The sound design on the gunfire is unlike anything else I've ever heard -- you can almost hear the bullets zipping through the air, and it's never clear where they're coming from. The exhilarating battle continues on the deserted street (with the adversaries still never seeing one another) much like it began, with both men waiting for the other to make a move.

No Country For Old Men is essentially about a satchel full of MacGuffin, the quest of two men to extend their lives for one more day, and an aging sheriff dealing with the fear of where his road may end. Like many Coen Bros. characters, the three men are very precise in what they say and do. These are the kind of resourceful men who use items such as tent poles, cotton balls, wire hangers and their confidence to extraordinary effect. And of course there's the little matter of a high-powered captive bolt pistol. This kind of device could only be utilized so efficiently by a man such as Chigurh, whose drive requires only the most clean, horrifying and consistent methods. When we first see him use the weapon, he appears almost giddy at introducing another person to its quiet terror, confident that his victim won't struggle because he doesn't know what the hell it is. Has there been a weapon so befitting a movie villain since Leatherface started up his chainsaw?

As to be expected from the Coen Bros, the characters are charmingly foolish, but with more than enough wits to make you believe in them. Llewelyn is not a smart man, but he's definitely cut from a different cloth than other Texan trailerpark folk. He brings trouble on himself more than once, but he never flinches when searching for the next rabbit hole that will lead him to daylight. Chigurh is a psychopath, but he's also a self-aware psychopath, and his confidence can often betray him (such as when he's squaring off against a bull-headed trailer park manager). Sheriff Bell always wears the face of the law, but he's obviously terrified of what he's up against. And you can always count on the Coen Bros. to pepper their films with odd, one-off characters who wouldn't show up in any other movie (Llewelyn's encounter with the teenagers on the bridge? Fantastic!), and they're always able to remind you never to try and take some world-encompassing message from what you're seeing.

After the second act, I knew the movie would produce an abrupt and divisive ending ala Miller's Crossing or Barton Fink, since it seemed the Coens were giving us another story that had no intentions of wrapping up nicely. I wasn't quite sure of it right after I left the theater, but it made more sense once I realized that Bell never saw Chigurh, but knew without a doubt he was still at large. To know that an invisible terror was capable of re-entering your life at any time is truly the stuff of nightmares, particularly the one Bell describes in the final shot.

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