An autistic film geek lover who loves the art of film and is not ashamed of it.
The role of the cinematographer is simple. They create the art of motion pictures by capturing the story visually. Though technically the director is in charge of the film, it’s the cinematographer’s job to ensure power over the camera and light crews during the production. It's the cinematographer’s job that the movie is good on a visual level.
There have many DPs who have shown great skill behind the camera over the years. The likes of Caleb Deschanel, Robert Richardson, Emmanuel Lubezki, and Hoyte van Hoytema have made their mark in the industry in recent years. But none have ever come close to the great Roger Deakins.
Roger Deakins is arguably one of the greatest cinematographers of the 21st century. He has become a household name in the film community with natural lighting, subtle camerawork, and bold color palettes. Shawshank Redemption, Fargo, and The Big Lebowski show his skill as a natural storyteller, and No Country for Old Men is no exception.
Llewellyn Davis (Josh Brolin), a hunter, discovers a suitcase full of money in the desert of Texas. He picks it up from what seems to be an aftermath of a shootout. This leads to him being tracked by the drug dealers who want it. To make matters worse, he is also pursued by Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), a psychopathic hitman who will stop at nothing to retrieve the money.
A Dark Neo Western
What makes No Country for Old Men such an iconic movie is its commitment to being a neo western film. It has all the western archetypes like the cowboy (Llewelyn Moss) and the outlaw (Anton Chigurh). The story takes place in the wilderness of the desert landscape in 1980 West Texas. It has the feel of a western movie, but it takes place in modern times.
So with this movie being half a western, it sets itself apart from many other western films that came out in the 60s by being updated in modern society. It has hyper-violence, a sense of displacement in modern society, and the search for justice. The film has a certain bleakness that makes its themes of fate, conscience, and circumstances more resonate than ever.
And those themes are conveyed visually through the gorgeous cinematography.
To achieve the gritty feel of the subject matter, the Coen Brothers and Roger Deakins shot on film with the Arrican LT and Arriflex 535B. For lenses, they used the Cooke S4, Zeiss Master Prime, and the Arri Marco lenses. The stock used in the movie is 35mm of the Kodak Vision 2383.
The Zeiss Master Prime lenses are known for having high resolution and contrast, no geometrical distortion, reduced dramatic flare, and no virtual breathing. The film feels clear with its contrast in certain shots.
Shooting on film was a wise choice because you can feel the tension through every frame of each shot.
I'm going to break down two scenes in the movie and how they use the fundamental elements of cinematography.
- Camera Placement
- Shot Size
- Camera Movement
- Shot Composition
- Camera Focus
Scene One: The Opening
The film opens with a narration by Sheriff Ed Tom Well (Tommy Lee Jones). He monologues his early days of being a young sheriff in Texas. From there, we get a short montage of desert land in Texas. The monologue ends when a deputy takes a mysterious man (Javier Bardem) into custody along with his gear.
The deputy reports his arrest to his superiors, unaware of the mysterious man escaping and using the cuffs to kill him.
With the monologue going on, we get some establishing shots of the desert. It may seem superficial at face value, but you have to think of the context of it.
Bell is remembering his early days of being in law enforcement. His times of his father being a lawman, old timers never wearing a gun, comparing young people to old timers, and thinking about the crimes today. This makes the establishing shots even more impactful. It sets up the theme of growing old and reflecting on the early days of life.
Lighting, Camera Focus, Camera Movement
While the deputy is on the phone with his dispatcher, Anton uses the handcuffs to strangle him to death. Pay close attention to the lighting of this scene. It is lit in two ways: low-key and hard lighting. The station is in shadows, but the light is coming from the lamp and the sun shining through the windows. It makes the setting feel more dark and intense.
And note that half of the deputy's face is covered in shadows, adding a sense of mystery to the scene.
The background is out of focus, including Anton, who is getting ready to kill the deputy. As all of this happens, the camera moves slowly in on him. When he hangs up the phone, Anton is in the focus of the frame as he strangles the deputy.
In short, the visual elements of the opening establishes three things:
- The heavy themes of growing old in a world of minimal morality.
- The serious and dark tone of the movie.
- The sadistic nature of Anton Chigurh's character.
Scene 2: The Hotel Shootout
In this scene, Llewelyn is hiding from Chigurh at a nearby hotel. Upon looking at the money, he discovers that there has been a transmitter in the case all along. It explains how Anton was tracking his every move whenever Llewelyn goes somewhere with the money.
When Anton arrives there, Llewelyn tries to escape. This results in one of the most intense scenes in movie history.
Before the shootout happens, the film uses practical lighting with the light source coming from the lamp. Llewellyn's face is lit from the lamp. In a wide shot, he's in a silhouette.
When he hears a sound coming from downstairs, he tries to call the clerk. There's no answer.
Llewellyn turns off the lamp, covering his room in darkness. The only light source that is lighting the room is the street lights coming from the window. Although Llewellyn is covered in darkness, we can still see him and his face. This choice of lighting adds suspense to the scene before the shootout even begins.
It's a prime example of how lighting is put into great use with the right people involved behind the camera.
Cinematography is the most important piece in filmmaking. It can be a good thing to make a film look good on a visual level. But if you want the cinematography to stand out in a way that will have people talking about it for years to come, you have to have the skill and courage to take bold steps in becoming a great storyteller behind the camera. And that's what the Coen Brothers and Roger Deakins achieved with No Country for Old Men.
Theodore Turnquest II (author) from Lakeland, Florida on May 28, 2021:
Thanks, comments are appreciated.
Atharva Deshpande from Nashik on May 27, 2021:
Roger Deakins and Coen Brothers might just be the best Director-DOP duo.
Tammi on May 27, 2021: