For filmmakers, music can be a tool that is used to manipulate or augment the audience’s emotions. Background music can set a film’s emotional attitude or tone, particularly with regard to the plot and characters. It can also act as a harbinger for future events by foreshadowing a change in mood, such as in films where dissonant music leads the viewer to believe in the existence of an impending disaster or unfortunate event. Music can also add a sense of continuity in that it may be used to connect different scenes through repetition, thus making more significant specific motifs that the filmmakers wish to portray (Marshall).
No Country for Old Men (Miramax, 2008) and Amelie (Claudie Ossard Productions, 2011) offer different takes on the use of music in film, but nonetheless are both successful in engaging their audiences despite the dissimilar approaches of the associated directors. In the case of No Country for Old Men, the filmmakers seem to explore the themes of fate and conscience. However, the film, a cat-and-mouse Western, is known for its absence of a traditional score, opting instead for a different form of immersive sound. For most of the film, all that can be heard is silence.
The sounds in No Country for Old Men are largely restricted to ambient noise, such as the sounds of wind and gunshots. The sounds of wind, in particular, lend for a sense of uncertainty. The lack of a traditional score commands the audience’s undivided attention and arguably makes the film more suspenseful in that there is no music to prepare the audience for what is to come. Because the audience is not given many cues in the form of music, the score can be considered minimalistic, yet it pulls the audience into the film.
The opening scene is a shot of deserted land, voiced over by the sheriff, who tells the audience that sheriffs once did not wear guns. The film’s antagonist, Anton Chigurh, is then shown being arrested and taken to a police department, where in the background of the shot, Chigurh contorts his body so as to move his hands, which had been handcuffed behind his back, to his waist. He then wraps the handcuffs around the sheriff’s neck and chokes him. The sheriff can be heard choking and flailing his body until his neck, as well as the room, is suddenly covered in blood.
This opening scene sets the tone for the rest of the film because it uses diegetic sound to compensate for the lack of a traditional score. Another similar scene in which music is not used is the shootout between Chigurh and Moss at the hotel. In place of music, footsteps are used to create tension. The scene also replaces the use of music with the sound of weapons. In particular, Chigurh uses his gun to break Moss’s lock on his hotel room door. The lock hits Moss, who fires back but splinters the door and then runs away from Chigurh.
Moss drives a pick-up truck to escape and eventually finds cover behind parked cars. When Chigurh approaches, Moss surprises him by emerging from his behind the cars and firing shots. In this scene, the audience is forced to focus on very small sounds, such as the cocking of Moss’s shotgun, the silenced gun used by Chigurh, and the ring of Moss’s unanswered phone call to the front desk early in the scene, as well as the beeping of the tracking device. The tracking device is important in that the beeping indicates that Chigurh is near his target, thus creating tension.
No Country for Old Men’s lack of a score also highlights the contrasts in the film. The opening scene, as aforementioned, is a shot of empty land and desert – this scene is very bright in comparison to the rest of the film. Similarly, the lack of a score emphasizes the contrast between loud sounds, such as explosions and gunshots, and the silence heard throughout the rest of the film. As previously mentioned, in the scene at the hotel in which Chigurh is approaching Moss’s door, the relative silence is broken by the shot of Chigurh’s gun, hich results in the lock hitting Moss. This is accompanied by the sounds related to Moss’s escape – the opening of the window, the shattering of the glass, and Moss’s fall on the sidewalk (Chitwood). This contrast between sounds creates tension and makes more salient the contrast between the characters of Chigurh and the sheriff, who seem to represent evil and good, respectively (Chitwood). One of the few scenes in which music can be heard, however, takes place near Mexico, where a mariachi band plays Mexican music as Moss crosses the border.
The end credits feature similar music that includes percussion instruments and a guitar. This more upbeat music marks a stark contrast from the rest of the suspenseful, nerve vracking film. The decision of the Coen brothers, the directors of No Country for Old Men, to stray from a traditional score differs from that of the director of Amelie, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, who uses music to express Amelie’s emotions. As in No Country for Old Men, music does not pose a distraction; however, unlike the Coen brothers, Jeunet chose to use a combination of music and other sounds in his film.
While most of the music in Amelie is cheerful and represents an accurate embodiment of the character’s personality, gloomy music is also played to express Amelie’s less joyful moments. Somber piano music is played at the beginning of Amelie. Perhaps this represents Amelie’s childhood that was marked by the death of her mother and a e of containment imposed by her father. From an early age, Amelie’s childhood was suppressed by her reclusive father, and Amelie was allowed very little contact with other people due to her father’s concerns.
As a result, she was uncomfortable in social situations and often times lived in her own fantasy world. The music in Amelie is also a reflection of the country in which the film is set: France. Much of the music revolves around the piano and accordion, both of which sound very French, thus supporting the film’s setting. When Amelie convinces her father to allow her to explore the world, and the film’s music conveys a sense of movement that is associated with her travels.
Had the ilm lacked a traditional score, as did No Country for Old Men, Amelie would have arguably lost its whimsical touch. While the lack of a score in No Country for Old Men is paradoxically effective, perhaps the use music in Amelie is more fitting for a more lighthearted genre. While No Country for Old Men is marked by a sense of realism, Amelie is marked by a mix of fantasy and reality. As aforementioned, Amelie often lived in her own fantasy world, and this contrast between reality and fantasy is emphasized by the film’s music.
This is especially apparent in the scene in which Amelie is baking a cake. While Amelie is shown baking a cake, in the corner of the frame there is concurrently a shot of Amelie’s fantasy, in which her love interest, Nino, is seen entering her kitchen and bringing her the yeast for baking. Meanwhile, a piano can be heard playing softly in the background, but when her apartment buzzer rings and she hears Nino calling her name, the music stops, representing a return to reality.
Music, or lack thereof, can set the tone for a film, as even in the opening scenes, it allows the audience to identify the genre and the level of drama that they can expect (“12. What is the Function of Film Music”). As evidenced by Amelie, music can be used to portray emotions, create a sense of geographic authenticity, and illustrate movement, as well as to make more apparent distinctions between fantasy and reality. No Country for Old Men accomplishes a similar goal but does so without the use of a traditional score.
In No Country for Old Men, the lack of music is a very important aspect of the film’s storytelling, emphasizing its suspenseful nature. The absence of a score commands the audiences undivided attention and forces them to focus on very small sounds that would likely have otherwise been overlooked. Furthermore, the contrast between loud sounds and the silence characteristic of the remainder of the film highlights contrasts that are emblematic of the relationship between the protagonist and antagonist, themselves.