Watching this movie in 2007, with Eric and Hannah Pope and Matt Tucker, resulted in one of the most memorable cinema experiences of my life: a packed theater simultaneously holding its breath. It happened in the scene where Lew Moss (Josh Brolin) wakes up in a hotel on the Mexican border and realizes that his nemeses must have some help in tracking him. He sifts through the satchel of money under his bed and finds an electronic tracking device. Then he hears something downstairs.
It’s so rare to find a room full of strangers who are as caught up in the movie watching experience as you are – who don’t defuse their anxiety with nervous giggles or cheap attempts at humor, but who let raw terror wash over them. This had a lot to do with the audience, no doubt: the Kendall Square Cinema in Cambridge, MA, as snooty of an art house crowd as you’ll find in America. But it also owed a lot to the genius of the Coen Brothers in crafting a scene of such perfect, fragile tension.
Why does it work as well as it does? Four reasons.
(1) The reliance on auditory cues over visual. There’s the silenced gunshot from downstairs (not replayed here) that gets Moss’s attention. There’s the soft creak of footsteps. The lack of any musical score. Sound tends to be scarier than vision: it’s harder to focus on and there’s so much room for ambiguity. If you see something weird in the closet, you can always get closer and verify whether or not it’s your shirt. If you hear something scraping outside your bedroom, getting closer won’t help you figure it out.
(2) Playing on established fears. We’ve already seen Chigurh slaughter a hotel room full of armed Mexican gangsters with no difficulty. And here’s our hero in a hotel room! Sure, he’s aware, while the other guys weren’t. Will that be enough?
(3) Also, unlike some anonymous Mexican gangsters, we like Lew Moss. He’s got a loving relationship. He’s generous enough to go back and give a dying man a drink of water. He’s demonstrated cleverness and pluck, two traits that audiences admire in underdogs. We want him to triumph over adversity.
(4) Reversal of expectations. The shadows of Chigurh’s feet pause outside Moss’s door, forming two columns. Here comes the blast – except not. Chigurh steps away, walks down the hall, and unscrews the light bulb. Now we’ve backed down from a climax, stepped up the stakes, and returned.
In addition to its superb construction of tension, there’s also the essence of noir – existentialist philosophy played out through action. In No Country for Old Men, this is personified through Anton Chigurh, an unstoppable hit man who contemptuously rejects the human attempt to impose order on a chaotic universe. “If the rule you followed brought you to this,” he asks of a man he’s about to kill, “of what use was the rule?”
Of course, in a notable and excellent deviation from the novel, it takes another character, Carla Jean Moss, to point out Chigurh’s own hypocrisy in this. By tying the fate of his victims to something like a coin toss, he’s making his own rules and thereby engaging in the deckchair shuffling that he declaims. “The coin don’t have no say!” Chigurh, heretofore unflappable in his deadly pursuit, pauses in reflection after hearing this. He then, as if to drive the point home, gets hit by a car.