My last blog post about a Roger Deakins film was pretty critical of the lighting in "The Shawshank Redemption" (1994) because it seems that when push comes to shove, the quality of the lighting is usually the first thing to go for him. You're pretty much guaranteed that any Deakins film will have exceptional compositions aided by camera movement that tells the story in ways that dialogue simply can't, but the variable is whether he'll be able to make the images pop with the lighting or paint for us a portrait of the characters using contrast and color.
Right from the beginning we're already introduced to the power of Deakins's camera when we're first exposed to Anton Chigurh's violent tendencies as he strangles a police officer. The camera looks down on Chigurh and the police officer from above and tracks in on them. They also get a great shot on their feet basically teasing us with the marks left behind by the officer's kicking and bucking until we settle on Chigurh’s face in a downright sinister camera move that serves as the perfect introduction for the pain this character is liable to cause further down the road. If you ever hear Deakins speak about his work he's usually very modest about what goes into producing the images he creates, especially for someone who is heralded as one of the foremost living cinematographers in the world. He often makes it seem as though he just got lucky or he's making simple decisions, which either means he's extremely humble or he's basically the Will Hunting of cinematography. When you think about it, there's a lot that goes into just shooting the one shot of Chigurh killing the police officer. They could have done it as a handheld, hectic, disorienting scene with quick-cutting like you would see in a film like "The Bourne Ultimatum" (2007). Even after deciding to tone it down a little, they could've made it one subdued and reserved wide shot like the moment when Michael Corleone has his brother Fredo killed in the lake in "The Godfather: Part II" (1974). There are a million more ways they could have photographed this scene, but they chose a way that begins with tension that grows into sheer horror and its incredibly effective.
Throughout the film they continue to use the camera successfully. There's something eerily foreboding about the simplicity of the cross-coverage that they employ when Chigurh confronts the owner of the gas station. The fact that everything has such an air of normalcy about it, even as we know that we're following a maniacal character, heightens the stakes infinitely. Later, when Chigurh is in pursuit of Llewelyn Moss from the motel into the streets we feel the visceral danger without the help of music or any dialogue from the characters. Instead the shot choice plants us squarely in Moss's point of view and we can experience being chased by a murder from his perspective (Thanks Deak!). One of the only handheld scenes occurs as Sheriff Bell runs into the motel after Moss has been killed. They have the camera leading him in and the keep it a little shaky to emphasize the drama of the situation. In true Coen’s fashion, they don’t actually show the main character being killed, but they clue us in to the weight of the situation by hinting to it in the scenes before and after the killing.
This brings us to his lighting and fortunately, it's all completely spot on in this film. One of the most powerful moments for lighting is actually something that seems pretty fleeting, but in reality it's absolutely critical. In its essence the plot of "No Country" is about a guy who does something selfish (stealing the money from the botched drug deal) and then something selfless (going back to offer water to a wounded man) and that confluence of actions is what lands him in a world of trouble. At its heart there's this moral question of what kind of person does Llewelyn Moss want to be and at what cost. That sentiment is perfectly summed up in one shot as Moss lays in his bed next to his wife and we see a contrasty sodium vapor streetlight illuminating half his face with some sort of pattern breaking up the light and casting shadows on his face. In this moment, he makes the decision to take the jug of water back for the survivor and essentially seals his fate. There’s no music playing and the only dialogue is a slightly defeated, “Alright,” from Moss. All we see is a man unable to fall asleep and the chaotic throw of streetlight through drapery blowing in the wind and we understand the decision he's going to make. This is the epitome of lighting being used to flesh out the characters.
Once he gets to the scene of the drug deal, Deakins does even more great work with the lighting. A lot of the scene is staged in heavy darkness. As he approaches the pickup truck, there is mostly just a sharp rim of blue moonlight illuminating the action with some light spilling onto the background as well, and it works perfectly for creating the tension as Moss tip-toes toward the vehicle. The key to creating silhouette is that the background has to be lit while the foreground remains unlit. Usually there's a back wall that the cinematographer can illuminate while cutting light off an actor in front. However, in this situation, Deakins does something that at least I have never seen before. He photographs Moss's truck at the top of a hill in silhouette, but of course there's no wall behind it to show off the outline of the truck. Instead he just lights the sky! Of course you can't simply light air, you always need something in the atmosphere for the lighting to show up, usually fog, smoke, or rain. In this case, since it was such a dusty environment he was able to light the dust floating around in the air to create the silhouette of the trucks. Not only does this come across as gorgeous and sophisticated lighting, but it also has a narrative purpose. When the unnamed bad guys start crowding Moss's truck, we can easily see that there are some people we don't know moving around up there, which is all we need. Even as they pursue Moss into the river, we never get a good look at them, so the silhouette helps to preserve the mystery of the faceless pursuer. The last reason why this lighting works so well is because by the time Moss runs into the river, the sun has already risen, so having that bit of light in the night sky gives us the sense that the sun has already started to come up. In these ways the lighting works logically/temporally, functionally, and narratively. It's all you could ever want from the lighting and really proves why Deakins is such a renowned artist.