The Coen Brothers have a way of creating unsettling characters in the most unsuspecting of ways. More specifically, their movies often feature memorable antagonists who pursue their targets with an almost comedic relentlessness, be it the lone biker of the apocalypse in "Raising Arizona" or Sheriff Cooley in "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" However, in "No Country For Old Men," this pursuer archetype would transform into something much more severe and terrifying than anything the filmmakers had created in the past. To set a precedent for what would follow for the film, the Coens decided to kick-off "No Country For Old Men" with a graphic and violent opening scene.
At the center of this violence is Anton Chigurh, in a performance from Javier Bardem that won the actor the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Chigurh is a terrifying threat whose subdued, chaotic, and violent nature is a large part of what makes the film as good as it is. The introduction of a character, evil or otherwise, is essential in making a movie intriguing. "No Country For Old Men" understands this well, as the film's opening scene — in which Chigurh strangles a police officer to death with his own handcuffs — perfectly demonstrates what Chigurh is capable of in what could be considered the most violent incident in a movie full of them.
Creating A Vicious Scene
In a video on the making of "No Country For Old Men," co-director Joel Coen, alongside stunt coordinator Jery Hewitt and makeup artist Christien Tinsley, talked about the planning that went into making the opening scene the most violent of the film. According to Hewitt, the movie's production team was caught off-guard by just how vicious a run-of-the-mill strangling scene could be:
"The thing that surprised all of us at one point was the opening violence, strangling the deputy with the handcuffs. And it was like, 'Oh, it's a tussle-y kind of fight thing. No big deal.' Oh, man."
The quietness of the film's opening minutes makes the violence that follows feel much more jarring, and the level of thought and detail that made it feel as realistic as possible is impressive. Strangling scenes are a dime a dozen in films, but the Coen brothers were sure to get the point across to Tinsley about their intentions to make this one distinct in a bloody way. The makeup artist explained:
"I was talking to Joel, and he goes, 'We're gonna choke him. And he's gonna die. His neck's gonna split open, there's gonna be some blood. And this has to be the most violent scene in the film. This has to be the most horrific, torturous, sort of choking scene ever seen.'"
Making A Scene As Brutal As Possible
To make the scene as convincing (and brutal) as possible, the special effects team worked hand in hand with the directors to figure out their approach. Joel Coen found the handcuffs to be the trickiest from a practical perspective:
"The question was: how to make that look real and brutal without hurting either of the actors? Because, to put any pressure on someone with a pair of handcuffs, your wrists go numb after a couple of seconds."
This problem is understandable, especially after watching the scene in the film's final cut. Clocking in at 40 seconds, the drawn-out death depicts Chigurh pulling the handcuffs against the deputy's neck until he cuts through his prey's neck. The editing of the scene makes the cuts sparse, forcing viewers to take in every second of this torturous death. To pull this off in-camera required both a harness and prosthetics for the most grisly effect, as Christien Tinsley recalled:
"We built this harness to the actor, which looked like something the Terminator would have. It had metal braces around the neck and handcuffs attached to that. And we created prosthetics that would fit over all of this and try to make it look natural… I give it to the [Coen] Brothers for shooting it in a way I think sells the effect correctly."
"Selling the effect correctly" feels like an understatement, as the opening of "No Country For Old Men" perfectly sets the tone for the rest of the film. The brutality of Anton Chigurh is put on full display, making for an excellent introduction to the character, and everything from that point on leaves viewers on the edge of their seats. It's a highly violent scene, but one that is necessary for the film and its story.
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