Even the most casual film-viewer is used to the conceit of a film’s ‘soundtrack’. Whether it consists of an original score or a set of handpicked pop songs, we give our subconscious over to it, allowing it to manipulate our understanding of the action we are seeing while realising that it doesn’t belong in the world of the characters on screen – they can’t hear it. In fact, the best thing you can do is pretend it isn’t there. And the best thing a composer can do is hide it from you for the majority of the time.
Then you come across a film like the Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men (2007), and something jars against your senses. It’s probably a combination of many things to be honest but the most striking by far is the complete lack of music throughout, right up until the final credits.
Why would a director choose to do this? And what are the consequences? The answers lie in the subject matter, camera language and setting of the film.
No Country for Old Men, adapted from the novel by Cormac McCarthy, is a story of greed, sociopathic violence, cat-and-mouse-chases, police investigation and what Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) perceives as a state-wide moral decline. Violence? Chases? Don’t these tags describe perfectly the kind of scenes we’re used to see being enhanced by adrenaline-boosting music? Some stabbing brass maybe, a driving ostinato on strings or some techno-inspired electronic percussion?
Not in this film. Because the Coens are aware that when music is used to amplify particular emotional reactions, it is serving as a mediator between audience and visuals. While this can intensify the action, it often acts as a kind of sugar coated barrier which dulls the reality of the on-screen events.
And to the Coen Brothers, reality is a primary concern. One look at Fargo (1996) and their remarkable style becomes apparent. This is precision film-making with all the jagged edges of their characters’ lives exposed. Anybody who has ever harboured a curiosity for what murderous mercenaries get up to outside of their exciting line of work will understand the humour behind the Coens’ work. Every uncomfortably long shot is intentional, every mundane conversation is deliberate. After all, why should only the most extreme moments of someone’s life be a worthy subject for film? If directors have the power to pick and choose, why not add in a minute’s worth of a guy struggling with TV reception as well as the same man getting hacked to death with an axe? It’s out of context (and I can’t recommend the whole thing highly enough; it’s called Fargo, watch it) but hopefully the clip below gives some sort of idea how beauty can be divined from such humdrum moments:
The music draws you to the strange and brief connection between a kidnapper and his victim while something routine goes on in the background. No Country for Old Men goes further, giving nothing to help you interpret the image. It’s raw and stark; events are what they are, no more no less. I point towards the section 5.00-13.00 where Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) first discovers the drug money while hunting in the open plains of West Texas. The shots are wide, very wide. Llewelyn and the landscape – that’s all there is and the score gives us nothing. No sympathy for the dying Mexican, no joy or anxiety at finding the money, just gusty wind and footsteps.
Another highlight is around 54.00-1.02.00 and the first ‘meeting’ between Moss and Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem). The vacuum left by the blank score is filled with the bleeps of a proximity sensor, Moss’ exhausted breathing and the cracks and smashes of a gun battle. There is no doubt it’s intense and with nothing to mediate between the situation and the audience, we have as little chance of escaping as Moss.
I have no idea if the Coen Brothers acknowledge/accept this but purely from watching their films, it is easy to draw parallels between their outlook and the philosophical state of Nihilism. Nihilists suggest that there is no objective meaning or purpose behind existence; qualities such as ‘value’ and ‘significance’, ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ are complete fabrications designed by humans in order to fool ourselves into believing that things really matter.
Sound depressing? As a matter of fact, brilliant ideas have sprouted from this bleak-sounding attitude – take Absurdism for example. The point is, in the face of dwindling faith in supernatural deities, Nihilism has been one of the most widespread default moods for the last 150 years. Nobody likes to stay in the void for too long, but accepting the meaninglessness of life is a common crisis before stopping moaning and just getting on with it.
No Country for Old Men embraces the void of nihilism simply by passing no judgement on the exploits of its characters. Music plays a big part in this by not being there. There is no romantic theme attached to Llewelyn and Carla Jean, no dissonant doom-laden motif for close-ups of Chigurh and nothing grand to mark the death of any main character. Things just happen in a brutally realistic way drawing attention to the fact that any engagement you feel with people/events is purely a result of your own volition.