Films have long held the interest of the American public and the world. For over a century, billions of people from every part of the globe have invested at least some portion of their lives to sitting in a theater or in front of their televisions staring at the action on the screen. While most people watch for mere entertainment value, simply hoping to escape the drudgery of everyday life, some people view the cinema as the most important art form to develop in the last hundred years. For these people, movies are much more than a way to pass time, but rather they are an all-consuming passion.
For these movie lovers, every little part of a film becomes ripe for analysis, and there are many parts that make up a film. From the most light-hearted short film to the most existentially heavy feature, the proper way to interpret and analyze film is to be educated on the history of the cinema and take into careful consideration the creative aspects of the film, including writing, direction, and acting, as well as the technical aspects of the film, which include everything from production design to lighting and sound. While music and sound are also an important element in modern film, the visual components that combine to create what is seen on the screen is the most important element in film and can help illuminate many of the film’s greater messages and themes. The mise-en-scene of such films like No Country for Old Men and Slumdog Millionaire, and which each won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2007 and 2008 respectively, show that the visual element can make a film far more dramatic and moving.
Joel and Ethan Coen have had a long success of interesting films, becoming two of America’s greatest filmmakers in recent years. While their style has often been described as quirky and esoteric, their visual sense has never been in question. Their 2007 adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel, No Country for Old Men, proved to be more of the same visual excitement. Following the menacing tale of Anton Chigurh, the directors applied their unique emphasis on visually stunning vistas, interesting angles, and expert cinematography to create an air of doom and hopelessness. While a completely different film, Slumdog Millionaire shares many of the visual techniques employed by the Coen brothers. Few films impacted 2008 quite as significantly as Danny Boyle’s film. With its realistic depiction of the terrible and brutal lifestyle that India’s impoverished children are forced to endure, Boyle coupled that with scenes of color and vitality, showing the multifaceted sides of the Indian slums. Each film is filled with violence, characters of questionable morality, and the promise for rich financial payoff, but the style in which these are achieved are as different as the plot themselves. However, each film manages to use its visual techniques to perfectly capture the time and the place of the action, both films use camera movement to reflect the mindset and overall mood of the characters and action, and each film shows expert use of what parts of the action to show and not show to add impact.
No Country for Old Men tells a story of murder, money, and mayhem in the sleepy, expansive 1980 West Texas landscape. Because of the setting, one can expect to see all of the standard things associated with such a time and place, and the Coen’s do not disappoint. There are plenty of pickup trucks, cowboy hats, and large expansive vistas that roll off into the distance. The scene where Llewellyn Moss originally finds the grisly scene of the shootout between drug runners displays many of these elements all at once. Moss walks with his gun through the rugged landscape. The sky is dominant over the scene, adding to the feeling of expansiveness. The vastness of the environment makes Moss’s presence there seem almost out of place, as if he was merely one man against the world and its harsh elements. He is out there hunting for something, but the overwhelming largeness of the landscape makes it seem as if he is actually the one being hunted and has little chance at escaping. Switching between the long shots of the Texas landscape to the tight shots of Moss walking through it, he finally stumbles upon the scene of the shootout, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. From his distant vantage point, he views the trucks below, and being the staging of him in relation to the trucks below suggest a disconnection. With a feeling of mystery and menace well established by Moss’s isolated walk through the openness, when he emerges at the location of the shootout, the viewer gets the feeling that he should not be there. Not only is the silent searching of the character ended, but it is shattered through the striking visuals of bullet-riddled trucks, blood spatters, and corpses lying about. Once again, the openness seems almost another character in this scene, and despite the violence he witnesses, it seems that his problems are far larger than anything he can see, or even imagine. Of course, this sense of foreboding established by the visual elements of the Texas landscape comes full circle once Moss comes in contact with Chigurh.
Slumdog Millionaire is similar to No Country for Old Men, in that it manages to perfectly encapsulate the feel of the culture it wishes to explore. As the film is representing the children of the slums through the story of Jamal, his recollections of his slumdog life provide a strong view into the life of all slumdogs. Through his flashbacks, viewers are given a clear picture of the life from which he came. The children of the slums are happy, wild, and seemingly oblivious to the many threats that viewers know all too well. Their clothes are colorful, they smile, even when surrounded by dirty and filthy houses, open sewers, and undesirable characters. Boyle’s use of colors help create the dualistic notion that the slums of India are not completely devoid of happiness or culture, and are in fact often bastions of goodness and family values. However, the color is often negated, as told through Jamal’s quest to get the autograph of his favorite Bollywood actor. Forced to jump into a large open sewer simply to get the autograph, he emerges covered in feces and succeeds to get his autograph. The way the little boy parts the colorful and loud crowd helps not only reinforce his indomitable spirit, but also helps show that the colorful lives of these slumdogs is merely covered in the waste in which they are forced to live. The slums remain colorful and full of life, no matter the violence or filth. Like how the Coen’s displayed Texas as expansive, slow, and deliberate, Boyle shows India as fast, crowded, and filled with all the colors of the rainbow, the bright and the dark.
Both Slumdog Millionaire and No Country for Old Men have chases that are key to the action. Because of this, the chases break up the traditional narrative in favor of frenzied activity that can often become confusing for the eye. While most of the Coen brothers’ film relies on the concept of a man being hunted down, a seemingly slow-speed chase, the action comes into full circle when Chigurh locates Moss. The action that ensues is fast-paced, dramatic, and done largely in the dark. The lack of lighting adds to the sense of foreboding and mystery, and though it is fast-paced, Anton rarely changes his deliberate pace. However, Moss moves quick, ducks, hides, and even if successful, the scene is framed in a way which places him as clearly the one with the disadvantage. Another critical chase scene, in Slumdog Millionaire, when Latika is kidnapped in front of a waiting Jamal, Boyle uses far different visual techniques as the Coens. While many of the elements of the slumdog life is fast-paced, the chase seen has Jamal looking down over the busy transit station until he sees the colorful Latika standing and waiting. Quickly, she is snatched, and he chases after her. The camera becomes frenzied, reflecting the crowded station, as well as the confusion of each character. The characters’ proximities remain distant in both films, but the action makes them almost seem closer than they are. Unlike the Coens’ chase, this is not deliberate, but rather chaotic, and Boyle’s canted angles and quick cuts reflect his different style. However, the way they portrayed chases is not the only visual difference between the films.
No Country for Old Men is equally dramatic for what it choose not to show just as much as what it choose to show onscreen. One of the film’s most pivotal moments is when Chigurh finally tracks and kills Llewellyn. However, in one of the film’s most interesting choices, viewers are deprived of the scene, instead only shown that Moss is dead and Chigurh most likely the reason. As the entire film revolved around Chigurh trying to retrieve his money, the fact that the moment is left out makes it even more full of impact. Boyle, on the other hand, prefers to show all the action in Slumdog Millionaire, from the aforementioned fecal scene to acid in the eyes of children, not really leaving much to the imagination of the viewer. As the most pivotal moment of the film, Boyle shows Jamal win the contest and become a millionaire, adding to the feel-good sense in a movie that had largely been up to that point depressing. He also uses this pivotal moment to show the death of his brother, who took the wrong path towards money, as he is shot to death in a bathtub filled with cash. The differences between the two films and how they relay the climaxes of their film show that sometimes it is just as important what not to show onscreen as it is what to show. Boyle’s scene of Jamal winning enhances the feel good moment, while the sadness created by Moss’s inevitable death at the hands of Chigurh is less dramatic without being shown in its graphic entirety.
No Country for Old Men and Slumdog Millionaire share some characteristics, as the quest for money and both having won the Academy Award for Best Picture, but the visual styles of the directors are far different. The Coen brothers take their time with their scenes, which helps to not only reinforce the feel and pace of Texas, but also the deliberate pace of Anton Chigurh. Danny Boyle prefers fast, boisterous, colorful scenes, filled with graphic detail which often tugs at heart strings. However, he similarly is adept at showing Indian culture in all of its color and darkness, and enhances his story through the visual elements he chooses to emphasize, such as crowdedness to the Coens’ emptiness. In the end, each film remains a visual testament to not only what to show onscreen, but also what not show.