Less But Better: Negative Space in No Country for Old Men

When I run into great art, I tend to overlook the technical mastery that [generally] lies beneath. It’s only later, after I’ve gone back again and again to search for some higher truth embedded within it, that I start to notice the little things which separate This from Everything Else. I’ve started to notice those things in No Country for Old Men.

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The film, directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, mostly tells the story of Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), a West Texan who stumbles across a drug deal gone bad in the middle of the desert. Moss finds shell casings and heroin and bodies — and $2.4 million, which he promptly steals. Of course, the bad guys want their money back and so they start hunting Moss. The movie follows him, his terrifying pursuer known as Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), and Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), an elderly lawman struggling to come to terms with the violence of a world he no longer understands.

It’s often been called a perfect film, which is a lofty claim.

But then you realize that many of the people saying this have spent their entire lives making and criticizing film. And even if you disagree with that claim, and even if you don’t put much faith in the Academy Awards, it’s hard to ignore that the movie won Best Picture, Best Director(s), Best Supporting Actor, and Best Adapted Screenplay back in 2008 — and that it did so with a production budget of just $25 million (meaning they could’ve made the film 11 more times before exceeding the production budget of the Pirates of the Caribbean installment released a few months prior).

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For a long time, I’ve struggled with the fact that we routinely bring several hundred extremely talented people together, give them a good story and $185 million, and condense it into a two hour dumpster fire. I’ve heard a number of explanations for this, the most probable of which seems to be that as more money is invested into a film, the pressure to conform to established, if unrewarding, formulae starts to increase. In other words, Disney will always prefer a cautious, derivative, and slightly profitable Star Wars movie to the financial risk of doing something new.

Of course, then it’s tempting to assume that small budgets lead to better films, but there are a lot of bad movies with small budgets, too — and therefore the most accurate conclusion I can reach is small budgets produce different, but not necessarily better, movies.

But then I started to watch No Country for Old Men again recently and quickly realized that it isn’t very different from other movies. Sure, it contains one of the greatest villains of all time, but he’s largely a byproduct of a fundamentally unoriginal formula: white hats and black hats chasing each other through the American Southwest (the most ubiquitous film setting of all).

But I kept watching.

And as I sat there on someone else’s loveseat, as I consistently denied her appeals to explain the story unfolding before us, I caught myself doing that thing I do with all great art: going back and noticing all of the technical excellence that I missed before.

Pretty soon, I realized something strange: No Country for Old Men was excellent not because of what was in it, but because of what wasn’t.

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In every respect, the movie is a 122 minute proof of Dieter Rams’ “less, but better” mantra. At every point, there could be more: more dialogue, more gunfire, more context, more of the visual stimulation that we expect. But this is withheld from us, occasionally to the point of frustration for first time viewers. Instead, the camera lingers uncomfortably or else cuts abruptly. Vital plot developments are hinted at, rather than spelled out.

The initial impression is one of incompleteness, of overconfident or even careless omission by the filmmakers. But in refusing to provide concise answers, and just like all great art, the film lodges itself in your mind for days or even years afterward. More than once, you find yourself simultaneously strolling through a grocery store and along the rim of a crater in the film.

And so you watch it again.

And by the third or fifth screening, you suddenly realize that the holes are not holes at all, but that they’re negative space — hollow and white and meticulously traced into the story. They’re calculated to balance the entire film and they’re maintained at an emotional cost that any conscious artist knows to be excruciating.

If you’ve ever painted or recorded music or decorated a room, then you’ve probably experienced that capricious moment when One More Thing ruins it. This is debilitating, because on the one hand, you’re committed to producing something beautiful (or at least captivating) and you know that this brush stroke or color or lamp is an inherently beautiful thing. But on the other hand, it’s obvious that adding this beautiful thing to an already-beautiful composition produces something inferior. It distracts or destabilizes or shoves Perfect towards Too Much — and it’s shockingly hard to forecast until it’s been committed to paper, worked into the song.

In most mediums, this phenomenon manifests itself in the form of a lot of discarded art. In digital mediums, it manifests itself in a kind of artistic paralysis — all works ensnared in a semi-eternal flux as the artist seeks the perfect combination. Regardless of which we’re talking about, it’s painful to endure — because you’re essentially stumbling over the fact that the best piece of art that you can make is beneath your capacity to create.

This fact is integral to my respect for No Country for Old Men, because the Coen brothers made a great film by consistently ignoring any impulse to show off their considerable filmmaking skills. In other words, they produced great art by leaving acres of blank canvas — and that is not easy to do.

Of course, they started with a good book by Cormac McCarthy and, though I haven’t yet read it, they claim it was simply cut down or compressed for the screen. Ironically, one of the few things which they added is the tense scene in which Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) flees the returning drug traffickers by jumping into a river — at which point a vicious dog jumps in after him.

This particular scene received a good deal of critical attention in 2007, and while I adore its authenticity — namely that Llewelyn, upon reaching the riverbank, stops to clear and dry his waterlogged pistol as the dog bears down on him — it recently achieved a degree of hilarity when I learned that it involved Brolin unenthusiastically jumping into an icy river at 5 am because that was the only time the light was suitable, according to Director of Photography Roger Deakins, and that the dog’s trainer continually called his name — “Scooby” — as he paddled after Brolin like death. I say “like death” because Death itself is clearly embodied in Anton Chigurh, the phantom (played by Javier Bardem) who relentlessly pursues Moss.

By my estimation, Chigurh is the greatest villain in the history of film — terrifying, principled, cryptic, blunt. He’s not unlike Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight, but, removed from the infantilizing setting of Gotham City and not inclined to advance some postmodern social agenda, he’s far scarier. He seems to thrive by rigidly enforcing the arbitrariness of death and it is a testament to the cultural impact of the film that even people who haven’t seen the movie can instantly recognize him or recall his lines. Of course, it’s also a testament to the power of negative space because the fact remains that we learn virtually nothing about Chigurh during the film — or the book. McCarthy even admits that he made up the name Anton Chigurh to deny readers any cultural reference points.

While Chigurh undoubtedly deserves an essay of his own, it’s worth noting that he demonstrates the film’s respect for negative space during the scene at the gas station, when he prods the clerk to choose his fate by calling the coin toss. This is about a half hour into the film, and while there have been visual cues as to the timing of the story(cars, clothing, etc.), the exact year is only now referenced — and even then, obliquely — when Chigurh wryly points out that the coin, minted in 1958, has “been traveling 22 years to get here.”

But even if you ignore this casual revelation, it’s tough to deny the respect for negative space at the gas station. The whole scene is almost exclusively composed of two mundane shots, one of Chigurh and one of the clerk, and some dialogue — during which Chigurh comes across as ominous, but not explicitly threatening. There’s no music, nor is there something so gratuitous as a shot of Chigurh’s hand reaching for a gun. The most overt appeal to tension comes from an empty, crinkled bag of peanuts (sunflower seeds?) spasming on the counter.


A Brief and Unsolicited Note

It’s at the end of this scene that Chigurh exposes the nonsensical, almost flippant part of his character — the part that makes it difficult to label him a psychopath or maybe even to hate him. Upon guessing heads and unwittingly saving his own life, the clerk starts to put the coin in his pocket, at which point Chigurh excoriates him for treating his lucky coin so callously. The befuddled clerk asks “well, where do you want me to put it?” to which Chigurh responds “Anywhere. Just not in your pocket. Where it’ll get mixed in with the others and become just a coin… which it is.” It’s a brilliant line, and as much as I want to write about what it means, I suppose I’ll fabricate some negative space of my own and move on.


Time and again, the film’s bias for negative space turns a good story into great art. Whether it’s the ruffled curtains at the motel or Moss’s unexpected offscreen death or Chigurh inspecting his boots on the porch towards the end, we’re constantly presented with less, but better. This is no accident.

The Coen brothers’ filmmaking style is meticulously planned and structured — to the point that every shot and scene and line of dialogue is decided long before the crew arrives. In fact, the only improvised line in No Country for Old Men occurs when Brolin takes the money from the dead man and simply says “mhmm” — but even this was only after trying variations like “hmm” and “huh.” This part excepted, the Coens tend to embody Hitchcock’s claim that he’d already seen the film in his head long before the shooting started.

This precision and respect for the plan is evident in the story’s geometry (three main characters; Moss’s twin midnight revelations that get him into and out of danger), certain recurring themes (boots, locks, coins), and the filmmaker’s decision to reuse nearly identical shots (Chigurh’s reflection in the television followed by Sheriff Bell’s). Yet they never let this positive space grow out of proportion to the negative space, never let the momentary urge to entertain to distract from the whole.

Unfortunately, it has since come to my attention that negative space is not the best concept to use because cameras, by definition, can’t really produce negative space. I found this difficult to fathom, mostly because I’d already fallen in love with the idea, and so I took one more look at the film — just to be sure that I wasn’t mistaking negative space for something else.

Sure enough, I was.

I looked a bit closer and noticed that the blank parts of the canvas weren’t blank at all. They were painted white.


A Brief and Undisguisable Change of Heart

I think that a lot of people find this film to be rather jarring, particularly because of the abrupt demise of Josh Brolin’s character. It’s almost as if he was dismissed from the set of the film — like he got into some trouble in the real world and was poorly written out of the story when the producers realized they didn’t have the money to reshoot his scenes with a different actor.

To this I say two things. First, the movie is obviously about Tommy Lee Jones’s character and his realization that, indeed, this is no country for old men. Second, David Foster Wallace predicted this jarring effect in 1988 in his essay “Fictional Futures and the Conspicuously Young.”

“Now try to recall the last time you saw the “hero” die within his drama’s narrative frame. It’s very rarely done anymore. Entertainment professionals have apparently done research: audiences find the deaths of those with whom they identify a downer, and are less apt to watch dramas in which danger is creatively connected to the death that makes danger dangerous… I claim that the fact that we are strongly encouraged to identify with characters for whom death is not a significant creative possibility has real costs… If we’re the only animals who know in advance we’re going to die, we’re also probably the only animals who would submit so cheerfully to the sustained denial of this undeniable and very important truth. The danger is that, as entertainment’s denials of the truth get even more effective and pervasive and seductive, we will eventually forget what they’re denials of. This is scary. Because it seems transparent to me that, if we forget how to die, we’re going to forget how to live.”

So maybe this isn’t about blank canvas or white paint.

Maybe it’s about how we’ve all forgotten how to live.