This winter produced two epic Westerns, both powerful and unconventional, both filmed in the same landscape, similar in some dimensions and contrasting in others. No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood present visions of the American dream gone haywire, one in orgies of killing, the other in a labyrinth of greed and madness. One thing that unites them is how all the elements of their soundtracks—dialogue, effects, music—work together to shape the story. What divides their approach to sound is that Jonny Greenwood's score for Paul Thomas Anderson plays out in the usual musical fashion if not with the usual sense, while the Coen brothers created a soundtrack of great expressive effect with next to no "music" at all.
In No Country for Old Men, hunter Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin) finds a briefcase full of large bills lying beside a dead man, one of several corpses spread across the desert after a busted drug deal. Moss takes the money and runs; complications ensue. He's pursued across the landscape by Javier Bardem's Anton Chigurh, a stone killer with pallid face, zombie eyes, and a pageboy bob. In There Will Be Blood, the scary character is our leading man. Daniel Day-Lewis' Plainview roams the landscape looking for oil; when he strikes it rich, his bloody misanthropy has leisure to flourish.
The Coens have always worked well with landscapes, from Raising Arizona to Fargo. Paul Thomas Anderson, in his new movie and in his previous Magnolia, has been more interested in the inner landscapes of his characters: what makes them run, makes them cry, makes them crazy. When it comes to their respective soundtracks, the question is whether to paint the outer landscape or the inner.
In the past, the Coens have never been much interested in the interior of their characters, so their music hasn't been, either. For years they've worked with the prolific film composer Carter Burwell, who's good with fulsome scores like the title cut for Fargo, supercharging a Scandinavian folk song. That cut has little to do with the movie's characters, though, who like many Coen characters are clueless innocents, poor schmucks, or enigmatic weirdos from hell. The charm of Frances McDormand's Marge Gunderson is that even though she's a cop, she's shocked and baffled by how mean people can be. Except to a degree for Marge, none of these people have any detectable inner life. Fargo'sgrand title tune relates to the great spaces of the plains and to the Gunderson's ethnicity, not to their quotidian souls.
No Country is a different matter. Tommy Lee Jones' Sheriff Tom Bell starts off declaring, "The crime you see now, it's hard to take its measure." By the end of the story he's given up trying to measure evil because he's been defeated by it, professionally and spiritually. Bell is a new kind of character for the Coens, a once-strong man whose pain we understand and care about. We feel for him—even though nearly everything in the movie, including the soundtrack, is radically underplayed. (This being a Coen movie, the violence is not underplayed.)
The music-as-such in No Country is the occasional barely audible hum and whine of undefinable instruments at moments of tension. It's the sound effects, shaped by Carter Burwell and sound editor Skip Lievsay, that handle most of the "musical" work. As in many film scores there's a recurring motif: the keening and howling desert wind. Its meaning is revealed at the end, when Sheriff Moss delivers a mournful soliloquy accompanied by the wind. The last thing we hear before the credits is the wind and the ticking of a clock. It's not just about death. It's the desert that is eternal and doesn't care about all the human messes played out on its surface, and the wind that will outlast us all.