No Country for Old Men_Javier Bardem front full_cap-001 © 2013 Contributor. All rights reserved.

Reading Costume Design in No Country for Old Men

The Coen brothers’ story of a drug deal gone wrong and the chaotic game of cat and mouse that follows is an exploration of masculinity in all its guises. Through divergence of clothing, costume designer Mary Zophres shows many variations of character and motivation and pinpoints the story within a time and place – rural West Texas, 1980.

The first shots of No Country for Old Men (2007) welcome us into the Texan landscape, the sky awash with muted blues and oranges before the scorching sun rises to reveal a landscape of pale brown sand. Not only does this evoke the wilderness and subsequent loneliness of the setting, but it introduces the key colours, notably tones of beige, brown and blue. Throughout the film, these colours are to be revisited repeatedly.

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We are introduced to the psychopathic killer Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) from behind as he is lead in handcuffs to a police car. The shot does not reveal his face, instead drawing attention to the handcuffs on Chigurh’s wrists and the police officer’s gun belt as they dominate the frame. What is immediately evident is the contrast between the arresting officer’s sand coloured uniform and Chigurh’s dark jacket and trousers. We are denied a glimpse of Chigurh’s face until the moment he strangles the officer to death using his handcuffs. Contrast of colour is again apparent as the two men writhe on the floor, highlighting the helplessness of the police officer.

The darkness of Chigurh’s outfit is in line with the tried and tested costume tradition of bad guy in black, hero in white, but with much greater subtlety. Darkness is effective for a villain because it brings to mind the idea of something hiding in the shadows; something that cannot be understood or captured. It makes a person more mysterious, it can cause them to blend in or stand out as desired and carries with it connotations of fear and death. However, Chigurh never actually wears black. The darkness of his ensemble, in comparison with the sand bleached beiges of those surrounding him, is enough to evoke all those thoughts of darkness while lending his character much greater intricacy.

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Chigurh chooses a dark wash denim jacket, cut to sit just above the hip with straight, strong lines that eschew the ‘western’ style V-shaping favoured in the pockets and yokes of traditional Texan clothing. Beneath this he wears a dark brown shirt with spear point collar and simple dark navy polyester trousers. His boots are dark maroon snakeskin and are arguably the most flamboyant part of his ensemble. This outfit is almost conspicuous by its divergence from the area-specific dress codes adhered to by all other cast members. What he wears is alien, in the same way that his behaviour is alien. The straight lines and heavy fabrics of his clothing – in particular his jacket – mean that despite the violence of his journey, Chigurh never appears ruffled either physically or mentally.

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In contrast, Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) dresses in apparel recognisable as belonging to the Deep South. He sports a variety of beige and brown check shirts, faded yet practical jeans and a pale straw cowboy hat. His clothing has the typical v-shaping to pockets and yokes that is so conspicuously missing from Chigurh’s, showing his alliance with the land; the country that has always been his home. Interestingly, Llewelyn is also the male character who changes outfits most often within the film as he loses composure along with certain items of dress. Llewellyn’s clothes are often dishevelled or sullied; dirty, torn, soaked with water and sweat, soiled in blood and frequently abandoned. His unkempt and increasingly wild appearance reflects his confidence and management of the desperate situation – he is a man with a steadily slipping grasp of control.

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Sherriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) is third of the three central male characters. Seen only in his uniform (with the exception of the very last scene, where he has retired), Sherriff Bell is shown to be a man who has made his work his life, and is becoming weary of his calling. He feels ineffectual against the great evil represented by Chigurh, something which is hinted at by the blending of his beige uniform with the barren, sun bleached sands of the Texan deserts. His deputy, while dressed in the same uniform, opts for short sleeves rather than long, a white round neck t-shirt visible beneath his shirt. He is more excitable, ready for action with a deep seated belief in what he is doing. Sherriff Bell, however, has become deeply jaded through years of service.

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While Bell and the other police officers wear actual uniforms, Llewelyn and much of the supporting cast could also be said to be wearing a uniform of sorts – a uniform of time and place. They are all dressed mostly in a colour palette consisting of beige, brown, cream, blue and denim. The costumes of the supporting cast heavily feature the v-shaping of yoke and pocket, jeans, overalls, checked/plaid shirts, cowboy boots and Stetson style hats. Chigurh is one of very few characters in the film to go bareheaded. This serves a dual purpose: firstly, it marks him out as an outsider and secondly, it shows his imperviousness to the hostility and heat of his surroundings (note: he also retains his denim jacket for most of the film, seemingly un-affected by the temperature). The three main male characters never actually share any screen time, so are never directly comparable. The contrasts between them however are highlighted by the colour repetition within the supporting cast; Llewelyn and Sheriff Bell fit in, Chigurh does not.

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Another male presence is Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson), the man sent to track down Chigurh. Brash and self-assured, Carson is not a hunter, farmer or cowboy, as shown in the grey suit he wears throughout. Yet, while his costume veers away from the familiar beige, it does conform to v-shaping and is worn with a cowboy hat and boots, marking him out as a middle man. He is the only character with previous knowledge of Chigurh, and as such he neither fits in nor stands out.

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Female characters do not feature heavily in the film. Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald), Llewelyn’s wife is presented as a worried bystander, her most decisive action being asking for help from the Sheriff. However, she is not presented as a coward – her courage is evident during her meeting with Chigurh at the end. Simple, pastel colours and print t-shirts, shorts and summer dresses show a woman who is modest and unassuming. Touches of florals and embroidery (such as that on her nightdress) reveal her romantic side, which serves to highlight her love for Llewelyn, the man she tries and fails to prevent from self-destruction.

Costumes also serve as plot points several times within No Country for Old Men, for example when Llewelyn purchases a teenager’s “Templeton Eagles” windbreaker to cover his own bloody shirt. Later, Chigurh buys a young boy’s Lee shirt to use as a sling when his arm is broken in a car crash. Both men assimilate items of clothing out of necessity rather than from considerations of taste or aesthetics.

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When Llewelyn escapes the hospital, his gown and cowboy boots provoke the suspicion of the border officer who understandably has difficulty trusting someone dressed so bizarrely. On arriving back in the United States, his first visit is to a clothing store, which he also visited earlier in the film to replace his lost boots implying convenience and the comfort of repetition. While fighting in a hospital gown may be difficult, new clothing is not essential. However, Llewelyn feels he must be dressed properly to make a stand – preparing his clothing is preparing armour.

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Chigurh’s clothing never appears ruined by the violence that surrounds him. When he slaughters three men in a motel room, the first thing he does is remove his presumably bloody socks as he cannot stand the physical stains of his violence to bear evidence on his clothes. After a shoot-out with Llewelyn, Chigurh is forced to cut his blood stained, bullet hole ridden trousers from his legs, changing into a similar pair in dark red. While his clothes have here been affected by the violence, it would be inconceivable to him to allow his appearance to remain this way. His regimented apparel makes him seem machine like and inhuman; his crimes sully neither his clothes nor his conscience. After Chigurh has left his confrontation with Carla Jean, he fastidiously checks the soles of his boots, as if for spots of blood, perhaps giving us a clue as to her fate…

Very different types of men are presented in this film, and masculinity is shown to be of a varied and somewhat indefinable nature. While one man in particular stands out as an outsider, none of these male characters are easily pigeon-holed – and this is as it should be. Costume does not shout for attention. It is period costume design, yet quietly so – it serves the narrative, gently creating a sense of time, place and personality. Characterisation and consequently deep character is complex and Mary Zophres’ use of colour, plus the gradual breaking down of costume tells of a sad, desperate battle against evil, pain and corruption.

By Bonnie Radcliffe.

Bonnie loves clothes and their power to transform and create characters. She has worked in a variety of roles in costume for film, television and theatre, and wants to share her love for the power of costume design through her writing.

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