No Country for Old Men

30 09 2008

I watched “No Country for Old Men” last week as part of my independent study (more about that later). This post has been floating around in my head for some time, but this is the first opportunity I’ve had to write it out.

The most striking thing–for me, at least–about the Coen Brothers is their unwavering attention to shot composition. They do everything well, obviously, but I think their very strongest point is the way they excel at creating form, rhythm, style, and meaning through something as small as a single shot. They’re so successful because they put an immense amount of effort and thought into every single shot in each of their films. I tend to believe that each shot in a film should be treated as an artistic composition. Just because you’re not painting or photographing doesn’t mean that those elements of art go out the window. It’s even more important, in fact. So naturally, I’m most impressed by directors who believe the same thing.

Take, for example, this shot from the first few minutes of the film:

They could have shown the whole body. They could have shown the dead man’s face. But instead, they sum up the whole story about the violence that’s just occurred in this one shot. Legs surrounded by scuff marks. And that’s it. That’s enough. And, after watching this scene, which leaves the greater impression– the actual struggle between the police officer and his killer, or this shot alone?

Later, when the main character is investigating out in the desert, we get this brilliant sequence of shots:

This produces a unique effect. The scene itself is slow, languid, gradual. Shots are long, subjects within the shots are few. They really take their time with this one. But it’s also charged with suspense, as you don’t know who’s hiding behind those trees, or if they’re going to start shooting at our hero suddenly. The Coen Brothers alternate back and forth between these shots of the two trees in an empty landscape and the protagonist, watching and waiting. By structuring their shots this way and continually returning to the trees at different distances, they build up suspense while maintaining the excruciatingly slow feel of a stakeout. Other filmmakers might handle this by including ominous shots from between the trees, or behind a stranger’s head, creating an ominous feel, but they know better. This isn’t horror; it’s suspense. And suspense captured in a way that exaggerates and stylizes reality, rather than departing from it to adhere to cinematic conventions.

How about this shot of a warmly lit motel beneath a beautiful sunset:

It’s peaceful, and even beautiful (for a motel). But as soon as the killer’s car drives in, it changes the whole feel of this shot.

The motel isn’t warm and friendly anymore– it’s dangerous! The directors didn’t have to have that sunset in there. It could easily have been late at night, or with a blue sky, or maybe just a normal cloudy sky. But the sunset lulls the audience into a false sense of security. We know he’s coming, but this beautiful sunset makes us forget, just for a moment.

They also use shot composition to frame their subjects throughout the film:

And occasionally, the subject in the shot is even used as part of the frame:

This concept of incorporating a character into the physical structure of the scene is one that I’d never really thought about before, but it works perfectly. Are we supposed to notice him? Is he an important character? Why is he there? What will he do next? All of the lines in this shot, including the curves of the man’s hat and coat are angled towards a single vanishing point. In artistic terms, he evens out the composition by adding balance to the right side, without disrupting the directional flow. It’s magnificent how they’ve done so much with just this one shot.

Finally, one of the best scenes, and probably my favorite (pay attention to the way the two characters are framed, the length and distance of each shot, and even the color choices within the scene):