PUBLISHED 17 APR 2017
FILM has always had a strong connection to sound, whether the scores and soundtracks used to create an atmosphere or the sound effects that intensify scares in horror or make people laugh in comedy. Even silent films had piano accompaniment. However, during the production of NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, Ethan Coen convinced his brother Joel that they should scale back on music and that is exactly what they did. Although the film does not appear to have a dominant score, composer Carter Burwell designed one that would blend in with the sound effects of the film. This absence of music means more emphasis is put on the dialogue and sound effects the film uses but the "silence" this creates is what stands out the most.
Set in Texas during 1980, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN builds upon the barren desert landscape commonly associated with the “Lone Star State” with an absence of sound in order to enhance the feeling of isolation and loneliness. When Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin) is first introduced, he is hunting in the middle of the desert and comes across the aftermath of a failed drug trade. Llewellyn’s isolation not only shows that he is far from civilisation but that he is also alone in the upcoming cat-and-mouse chase he is stuck in. A convention of the traditional western is to feature the beautiful sights and scenery of the desert in a way that makes it seem more than a mere desolate wasteland. As a neo-western, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN cherry picks the use of visuals in the traditional western and pairs it with the use of silence to create a more immersive and unnerving landscape.
Silence is a key method for creating tension in any film and there are two iconic and important examples of this in the film. The first is when Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) is at a small gas station and starts to become concerned whether the owner who is serving him is a liability. What follows is a tense exchange that culminates in a coin toss for the owner’s life. The dialogue in this scene is slow and has many pauses and the silence between each pauses amplifies the tension each time; the scene could go anywhere. In many films, tension is created with non-diegetic sound - a rising note or loud strings or drums - which can sometimes be slightly overwhelming. It is significant that NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN can create the same effect with an absence of atmospheric sound. Another scene where the use of silence is intrinsically important to the film is when Llewellyn is in a hotel and hears someone creeping down the hallway. The scene is completely free from dialogue and has very few sound effects but, as the viewer sees Chigurh’s shadow near the room, the tension builds and when the light goes out there is nothing but stillness and the fear of what will happen next. This is a perfect example of why silence is so useful for tension; it creates a feeling of unpredictability that music and dialogue can sometimes take away as they begin to take over.
NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN may not be breaking new ground with its use of silence, as many films have played with it over the years. But unlike many films it does make the presence of silence known and makes it a characteristic of the film. In a time when films seem to be getting bigger and louder, it is refreshing to hear a film embrace silence.
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