This winter produced two epic Westerns, both powerful and unconventional, both filmed in the same landscape, similar in some dimensions and contrasting in others. No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood present visions of the American dream gone haywire, one in orgies of killing, the other in a labyrinth of greed and madness. One thing that unites them is how all the elements of their soundtracks—dialogue, effects, music—work together to shape the story. What divides their approach to sound is that Jonny Greenwood’s score for Paul Thomas Anderson plays out in the usual musical fashion if not with the usual sense, while the Coen brothers created a soundtrack of great expressive effect with next to no “music” at all.
In No Country for Old Men, hunter Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin) finds a briefcase full of large bills lying beside a dead man, one of several corpses spread across the desert after a busted drug deal. Moss takes the money and runs; complications ensue. He’s pursued across the landscape by Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh, a stone killer with pallid face, zombie eyes, and a pageboy bob. In There Will Be Blood, the scary character is our leading man. Daniel Day-Lewis’ Plainview roams the landscape looking for oil; when he strikes it rich, his bloody misanthropy has leisure to flourish.
The Coens have always worked well with landscapes, from Raising Arizona to Fargo. Paul Thomas Anderson, in his new movie and in his previous Magnolia, has been more interested in the inner landscapes of his characters: what makes them run, makes them cry, makes them crazy. When it comes to their respective soundtracks, the question is whether to paint the outer landscape or the inner.
In the past, the Coens have never been much interested in the interior of their characters, so their music hasn’t been, either. For years they’ve worked with the prolific film composer Carter Burwell, who’s good with fulsome scores like the title cut for Fargo, supercharging a Scandinavian folk song. That cut has little to do with the movie’s characters, though, who like many Coen characters are clueless innocents, poor schmucks, or enigmatic weirdos from hell. The charm of Frances McDormand’s Marge Gunderson is that even though she’s a cop, she’s shocked and baffled by how mean people can be. Except to a degree for Marge, none of these people have any detectable inner life. Fargo’sgrand title tune relates to the great spaces of the plains and to the Gunderson’s ethnicity, not to their quotidian souls.
No Country is a different matter. Tommy Lee Jones’ Sheriff Tom Bell starts off declaring, “The crime you see now, it’s hard to take its measure.” By the end of the story he’s given up trying to measure evil because he’s been defeated by it, professionally and spiritually. Bell is a new kind of character for the Coens, a once-strong man whose pain we understand and care about. We feel for him—even though nearly everything in the movie, including the soundtrack, is radically underplayed. (This being a Coen movie, the violence is not underplayed.)
The music-as-such in No Country is the occasional barely audible hum and whine of undefinable instruments at moments of tension. It’s the sound effects, shaped by Carter Burwell and sound editor Skip Lievsay, that handle most of the “musical” work. As in many film scores there’s a recurring motif: the keening and howling desert wind. Its meaning is revealed at the end, when Sheriff Moss delivers a mournful soliloquy accompanied by the wind. The last thing we hear before the credits is the wind and the ticking of a clock. It’s not just about death. It’s the desert that is eternal and doesn’t care about all the human messes played out on its surface, and the wind that will outlast us all.
You could say the rest of the sound in No Country rises from that wind: the flat tones of the voices, the hum of engines and the whoosh of the road, the barely audible drones of instruments that fade in and out of other sounds, or are terminated by gunshots. As the demon killer throttles his first victim, the sound of a locomotive appears out of nowhere; it tells us this guy is a rampaging machine that cannot be diverted from its track by mere human flesh. Sometimes the Coens wield a terrifying silence that does the job of, say, Max Steiner’s old, stabbing threat-and-suspense chords, and does it better. How all this works can be heard in a scene near the end. Sheriff Bell stands before the door of a motel room, knowing the demon may be on the other side. What we hear is the distant wail of wind, a distant train barely audible, a falling hum of motor somewhere, a low drone of music fading to silence. The sheriff opens the door.
The music for There Will Be Blood has drawn a lot of comment because composer Jonny Greenwood is lead guitarist for Radiohead, but the score is classical, ranging in style from Brahmsian (literally) to avant-garde. The score ought to draw comment instead as one of the most original of recent years.
Blood begins with an eerie glissando of strings, ending in a buzzing dissonant cloud. That fades into the sounds of a man mining alone in a hole in the ground: pick striking stone, thump of dynamite, falling stone and falling man, groans and bellows of pain. Once again we hear that there does not have to be a dividing line between sound effects, music, and dialogue. As much as Bernard Hermann’s title cut for Vertigo–haunting, disorienting, suddenly passionate—the long “silence” of Blood’s opening sequence conjures its tone and story: dirt, struggle, pain, an assault on the earth. The sounds also tell us about Daniel Plainview’s ruthless, obsessive, blasted soul.
There is plenty of score in the movie, too, but the music flows from that opening sequence without music or dialogue. The styles that composer Greenwood takes up in the course of the film range from ‘70s avant-garde to stretches of Minimalist cello to an explosion of percussion for an oil-well fire, with the occasional poignant cut and an inexplicable eruption of Brahms Violin Concerto. What is original about the music is not its style but its darkly ironic relation to the story and images. In this Western where nothing happens as expected, the music does not reinforce the visuals but consistently plays against them, making everything fraught and ambiguous. At triumphant moments, the music is ominous. When people talk business or get married, the music is plaintive. Nothing is what it seems. So what is it?
Eventually we find out. That opening creepy glissando of strings and dissonant buzzing returns after our antihero Plainview has killed a man for no discernable reason. So all along the music has represented his madness, his hatred of humanity brooding unseen beneath his triumphs and his tender moments, turning everything to tragedy and dust. “I’m finished now” are his last words, and he seems almost to relish them.
Each film and its musical score or antiscore works splendidly on its terms. The dark ironies of Greenwood’s music for There Will Be Blood give the story an unquiet subtext, meanwhile avoiding every movie-music cliché of suspense, love, excitement, whatever. The Coens shape the whole soundtrack into a kind of expressive music, all of it laid over a silence we sense will outlast even the wind. Paul Thomas Anderson is passionate about matters of the heart. The Coens, in their often quirky and passionless way, still have always seemed to be searching for something eternal, and surely in No Country for Old Men they get closer to eternity, in both its human and inhuman dimensions, than ever. And these directors know how to put sound and silence at the service of a vision.