Sunday, May 04, 2008

The Coen Brothers and the "Outlawyer"

From the top: 1)Leonard Smalls, in Raising Arizona (image found here)
2) Charlie Meadows, Barton Fink.
3) Anton Chigurh, No Country for Old Men (image found here.

My colleague Lynnea the movie-lady (who has not lent me anywhere nearly as many movies as Larry the movie-guy has but who is co-editing a collection of essays and interviews on the Coen Brothers) lent me her copy of No Country for Old Men last week, and I watched it Friday night. I'm only now getting around to posting on it because it is, in the best sense, a difficult film to approach. Aesthetically, it's very different from not only the Brothers' usual, highly-stylized work, but also from just about everything else out there.

One enormous difference in this film, often remarked upon, is the near-absence of a soundtrack. I noted only two moments in the film in which music was used to reinforce the scene, and even then it was barely audible. It's not until we encounter the absence of such a commonplace that we realize just how dependent film-makers assume the audience is on the soundtrack to telegraph to the viewer how we should respond to what we hear and see onscreen.

I'd like to suggest here that the Coens' not having a soundtrack for No Country does more than the obvious of getting us to really watch and listen--and, as a result, really heighten the suspense. It also contributes thematically to the development of a recurring character type in the Coens' films, what I'm calling the Outlawyer. [Aside: I'm sure there's a better name for this type; I'll happily take suggestions in the comments.] This is someone who, because he is a true outlaw--literally, someone outside (that is, beyond the bounds of) the law (not just legal codes, but also systems of morality), cannot be--or refuses to be--judged by that law. These figures are something other than mere criminals. In that aural vacuum of no-music, the Outlawyer establishes his own code; he rules and is ruled by it; thus, the "lawyer" part. At its most effective, we are in thrall to that code--a code, moreover, that we do not fully comprehend and thus cannot predict. This is the realm of horror--a genre that someone in the "Making of" featurette on the No Country DVD says this film partakes of to a certain extent.

Below the fold, some sketching out of this.

Leonard Smalls (played by Randall "Tex" Cobb) in Raising Arizona is the first of these characters, but as his first appearance in the film shows, he's actually what will prove to be a caricature of the Outlawyer, and it's in large measure the accompanying music that signals this:

We're meant to laugh at Smalls, with his "Mama didn't love me" tattoo and bronzed baby shoes--Raising Arizona is a farce, after all--but in No Country there's a brief but telling moment that links its Outlawyer to Smalls, when Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) also takes a pot-shot at an animal from the truck as he's driving. No pleasure but in meanness, as O'Connor's Misfit, perhaps the Coens' prototype for this character, would say.

Except. Neither Smalls nor Barton Fink's Charlie Meadows (John Goodman) nor Chigurh appears to derive any pleasure from their meanness--indeed, for us to say that, or to characterize their behavior as meanness, would be to read them in accordance with what we assume is true of such behavior. Each, instead, figures himself as performing something of a service for at least some of their victims: Hy sees Smalls as an avenging angel "unleashed" to punish him for his sin; Charlie tells Barton that be knows what it's like for people when things get balled up at the head office and so "I help them out;" and in this early scene from No Country--which alone may have won Bardem the Best Supporting Actor Oscar--Chigurh makes the gas-station attendant focus on the here and now in a way that, one is certain, he had never in his life done before:

"Will there be something else?"
"I don't know--will there?"

It's like peering into an abyss, that moment, which the remainder of the scene only reinforces. Tellingly, the ambient noise--is that some sort of droning note?--gets just a bit louder at the 2:43 mark, "What's the most you ever lost on a coin toss?" then gradually grows louder (though it remains very faint--less like music than like blood rushing in the head) till it suddenly ceases at the 3:57 mark--the revelation that the coin is "heads."

Never to me have fanbelts looked so much like hangman's nooses as they do in this scene.

Whereas in earlier Coen Brothers films the Outlawyer has not been the protagonist, I'd make the argument that Chigurh is No Country's central figure: his actions render the film's world as blank as the west Texas landscape. The film's trailer, you'll note, isn't about Josh Brolin's Llewelyen Moss or Tommy Lee Jones' Sheriff Ed Tom Bell: as with all good horror films, it's about the monster--or, more precisely, their attempting, and failing, to understand the monster:

By the way: it's no accident that you hear far more "music" in the trailer than you do in the entirety of the film. The point of the trailer is to introduce the audience to the film--that is, it's supposed to provide some clues as to how to approach it. But the "music" we hear is more like sounds, some of them almost ambient or "found" in quality. Melody is absent; it's all atmosphere, and not a pleasant one at that.

I have some vague ideas as to why the Coens might find the Outlawyer such a compelling figure, but the operative word here is "vague." I'll let you know when I figure out something about that.

UPDATE: My good friend R. Sherman of Musings from the Hinterland has also posted a review of No Country, this one focusing on the correspondences between McCarthy's novel and the film. For what it's worth, I think he's spot-on.


Doc said...

I did not touch on this when I wrote about 'No Country...', mostly because a) I didn't have the time (who ever does?) and b)I linked it to (a tiny portion of)race relations in KC and didn't then -and still don't now- have an apt analogy...

I use the term the 'Outsider' for Chigurh.

He is what the volk at the tail end of the Weimer Republic were so afraid of that they abandoned a liberal democracy for the security blanket of Hitler's Nazism; he is the central protagonist of Colin Wilson's "The Outsider"; he is Charlie Manson; he is the Global War on Terror that allows Shrub & Dick "I Shoot ALL My Friends in the Face" Cheney to run roughshod over The Constitution without any serious pushback from either Congress or the American public.

He is that [and every iteration of] individual(s) throughout history who understand that there is no supernatural reprisal awaiting upon his demise; no firey behavioral modifications down below, no blessed manna dripping from strangely spotless white robes awaiting upon high...

That he does NOT exist except as myth and statistical anomaly makes him all the more powerful: "No, it's true! We were parked down old Drury lane, when we heard this 'scriiiiitch...scritcccccch' on the car roof. I started to look and this arm with a hook swept over..." - it is all too easy, and dead wrong, to confuse the true 'Outsider' with the uptick in crime and our current laissez faire attitude toward it-especially minorty crime(yet a post in itself).

And, it says (but, at least in my poor words, not well) more about us, how en masse we perceive said figure, than how said figure really exists...

damn - hijacked a post again; shoot me, please...

R. Sherman said...

Thanks for the plug.

As a coda to Doc's comment, I think Chigurh and the like are indeed created by us -- that is his like are the inevitable creation of a society which accepts the postulate that there are no absolutes. It is the realization that he is the "ultimate human" that causes Bell to realize the country is no longer for him and other "old" men.


Winston said...

We watched No Country a couple of weeks ago. Well, actually, I watched it and Roomie kept leaving the room with each violent scene, until she did not return at all. It is one of those rare movies that I don't have an immediate opinion of, but continue to ferment one over a period of time. Your analysis and the comments above have aided that process. But, I really need to see it again and pay close attention to several areas. With the Coens as with McCarthy, the devil IS the detail. And the devil is not far off the mark with this story, as Chigurh seems to me the very personification of evil, whether you call him Outlawyer, Outsider, or whatever...

I need to see it again to have another listen to the lack of background music. That actually disturbed me, though at the time I did not realize why. The lack of music thrusts the viewer into the reality, the here and now, of the story more effectively than the use of dramatic orchestrations. The mood is genned by the action, not by a contrived score.