The Sound of Nothing

Ethan & Joel Coen's No Country For Old Men

published in Film Comment Vol.44 No.2, New York 2008

The welding of the USA with the Western is one of the mythic cornerstones of American Cinema. Upon today’s contemporary plateau, even the genre’s most modern formulations lay beyond the horizon line. As classical as John Ford’s Stage Coach (1939) appears due to its baroque detailing, the genre ur-text of The Searchers (1956) is already a dimension away from anything resembling silent cinematic staging. When the camera creeps imperceptibly towards Ethan Edward’s (John Wayne) face, a dreadful silence fills the cinesonic space with repressive quietude.

The catalogue of post-Elvis Westerns restages the genre as if it had not already achieved modernist dissolution prior to Elvis being drafted. Ethan and Joel Coen’s No Country For Old Men (2007) is arguably the first Western to sidestep this historiography and in place occupy the cinesonic space of John Wayne’s vacant, glassy stare. Normative discursive operations can chart the thematic map of No Country, but it’s in its disquieting silence – recorded, encoded, textured, atomised – that the complexity of the film’s genre programme can be perceived.

Notably, No Country bears a featureless score by Carter Burwell (long-time collaborator with the Coens) in order to focus our experience of the film’s silence. Burwell’s ‘self-silencing’ is a profound tactic that refuses musical manuscript and embraces psychoacoustic power. There are maybe only five or six musical moments (barring Burwell’s gorgeous credit roll piece), and each is a sustained, diffused choral murmur: neither vocal nor instrumental nor performative, but evoking a distinct presence which refuses to be anchored by scenography or even dramaturgy. These resonant passages freeze time and transfigure momentum – radically opposing centuries of pastoral baggage which continues to fence in movie music with oppressive territorial control. Burwell’s soft tinnitus-like ringing resembles an aural aura which follows the film’s characters Llewelyn (Josh Brolin), Ed (Tommy Lee Jones) and Anton (Javier Bardem). But it follows them like a scent overcome by drafts: it does not dress them, attach to them, or sing along with their words. For these characters are mostly silent, thinking loud thoughts to themselves alone, unaudited by the social spectrum and trapped in the acoustic isolation booth of the mind. From Llewelyn’s naïve instinctual impulses to Ed’s exhausted mortal slide to Anton’s impassive planar objective, their dramatic purpose almost repels musical scaffolding. Burwell’s hovering notes and chords are then less architectural and more geological, holding these figures in relief against the landscape of their minds.

Yet action does unfold in No Country. Perceivable as the archangel Gabriel, Anton has come to annunciate Llewelyn, Ed and others’ pregnant emptiness at the moment of their demise. He bears a new kind of trumpet, reconfigured through a hyper-expulsion of compressed air. His breath is so powerful it becomes pure percussion, impelled by such vicious force its transient attack moves physical objects and creates holes in doors, walls and heads. The portable air cattle-gun he lumbers throughout the film is a sublimely modern instrument of musical death. Sound designed by Skip Lievsay (another long-time collaborator with the Coens), its crafting, placement and resolution is worth a hundred Hollywood scores and their tacky samples of taiko drums. Complementing Burwell’s tonal ambience, Lievsay equally conducts his own sonic orchestra of ventilation ducts, creaking hallways, bleeping transponders and chirping crickets.

No Country’s morphological charter to collapse sound and music into each other is both a rigorous poetic project developed by Burwell and Lievsay, and a thoroughly precise meditation on how the dramaturgical becomes cinesonic. Those gaping holes where door locks were once bolted might quaintly be imagined as symbolic camera obscura for the film’s artful staging, but in a meld of metaphysics and psychoacoustics they gouge the psyche and impregnate the closed self with all it pressurises beyond itself. Created by the punching of air alone, they allow external atmosphere to transgress personal space and force the self to vaporise. Finally, we get to hear what was inside John Wayne’s mind in those iconic moments: nothing.

Text © Philip Brophy 2008. Images © Miramax