American Violence – A Critical Film Analysis of No Country For Old Men
A violent contract killer, a blue-collar welder, and a weary sheriff are all players in the ensemble No Country for Old Men. The Coen Brothers adaptation of the novel written by Cormac McCarthy is a multi-genre, visual buffet about a man’s strength of will and dedication. It’s about death, fate and American violence. It is set in 1980 and centers around the chaos of questionable decision making and killing without a purpose or at the very least killing without ethics. Every Coen Brother movie has utilized violence as a way to enhance realism, entertainment and narrative. Each of their films employ bloodshed in various ways, but No Country For Old Men effectively serves all of those elements to articulate the nature of American violence: dirty, bloody, unforgiving and unrelenting. The mise en scene, sound design, cinematography and editing dance together to inspire a different way to look at how violence is a part of our history and how we sometimes only question it’s existence when we personally fall victim to it.
The film opens like all of the Coen Brother’s films with an establishing shot of the landscape of wide-open emptiness and the vast Texas plains. A narration breaks the silence by informing us about the way things used to be. Tommy Lee Jones’ character, an experienced lawman, named Sheriff Ed Tom Bell pontificates on the easy breezy times of lawfulness in the past, while we are introduced to the films antagonist, Aton Chigurh played by Javier Bardem. Chigurh is an unstoppable killing machine that we are unable to access. We constantly struggle to understand why he is so ruthless, even when it is unnecessary and the film does a great job of not letting us in on his methodology. It is not enough that people die or that blood flows, the Coen Brother’s emphasize the trivial details in death. The high-angle shot of Chigurh’s vicious attack on the deputy, coupled with the tracking shot, that allows us to view the violence from different angles, leaves us astonished by the savagery of Chigurh’s character. It is then that we realize that
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he is something special. We then see a shot of the deputy’s boots and a barrage of boot marks that tattoo the floor, pointing to the desperation for life when death approaches.
Relentless evil with a touch of dark humor is a theme that is used by the Coen brothers in most of their films, however, in No Country For Old Men, the cinematography was used to express grim and dark circumstances throughout most of the scenes with very little to laugh about (Rowell, p.193). The cinematographer, Roger Deakins, uses a lot of camera angles and shadows to communicate impending doom around every corner. The camera style and the lighting are both there to serve the characters and to tell the story. The camera movements appear to be well thought out so that they enhance the salacious feast of violence. Every frame seems to pull you along with each character while you hold your breath until danger passes, temporarily.
The creativity of the Coen Brothers manifests in many ways in their films, but the one distinction that we have come to love is that they seldom provide detailed backgrounds of their characters. The people just exist in their day-to-day worlds. Llewlyn is a welder living in a trailer home. Whatever ambition he has, the Coens never grant him the opportunity to express it. Instead the audience is left with only his behavior to evaluate. He’s no stranger to carnage, which is exemplified by his discovery of the shoot-out in the beginning of the movie. Llewelyn marches into the scene like a soldier. By keeping his rifle drawn and never flinching in the wake of violence, his Vietnam background becomes evident. Instead he inspects the blood bath with curiosity and not disgust. The heavy use of long shots and extreme long shots...