If there is one thing that the Coen brothers know how to do best, it is building tension. No film of theirs makes me as tense as their neo-western classic, No Country for Old Men. 

Adapted almost directly from Cormac McCarthy’s novel of the same name, the Coen brothersNo Country for Old Men is a lean and brutal story that explores whether any man can outrun his judgment. As Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) slowly tracks down each character with a bolt pistol, I can't help but think about how effective the Eagle Pass Hotel scene is at building and maintaining tension. 

In this scene, Llewelyn (Josh Brolin) checks into a hotel after outrunning Anton the first time. He already knows that Anton is hot on his tail, but he, along with the viewer, doesn’t know how close the hitman is. There are three techniques at play during this scene that make us clench our entire bodies as we watch the two men trying to outmaneuver each other for a suitcase full of money. 

Check out the 10-minute scene, and then we will break down what makes it one of the tense action sequences. 

The Perfection of the Pacing 

Llewelyn is the embodiment of calm, cool, and collected when he arrives at the hotel. As he lies awake, the camera pushes in on him until he realizes that there has to be a tracker in the money. It’s these little realization moments that Llwewlyn has in his hotel room that help create tension at the moment as the fear of what is around the corner approaches. 

Once he hears the distant beeping coming from down the hall, the fear settles in as he and the audience prepare for a showdown. 

This is when the pacing slows down in the scene as we wait for someone to pull the trigger first. As we sit there in the darkness of the room, the camera cuts back and forth to Llewelyn and the door until the audience is aching for release.  

When the release does come, it initiates the best cat-and-mouse chase. The antics he used the last time to leave town don’t work, and the audience believes one of the men will die by the time the scene ends. 

The camera’s stillness helps accomplish this well-paced action scene as it waits for the characters to hit their marks near the camera. The camera and the audience are always rooting for Llwewlyn to make it to safety, fearful that he will get shot by Anton if he isn’t quick enough. 

No Country for Old Men\u2019s Hotel Scene Is Still a Masterclass in Tension'No Country For Old Men'Credit: Miramax Films

Absence of Dialogue 

Another way that the Coen brothers heighten the tension of this scene is by eliminating any conversation between the two men who want to kill each other in total anonymity. 

Anton is a character who is focused on the task at hand. He doesn’t have time to talk to anyone unless he is teasing them into his sick and sadistic coin-toss game. Llewelyn, however, is a man of little words who states exactly what he needs and wants. 

It is the lack of acknowledgment of one another that makes this a beautiful cat-and-mouse sceneLlewelyn knows he will die if he can’t outrun Anton, and Anton wants to finish his job. It's a simple understanding that doesn’t need to be established through a conversation. 

The Coen brothers have already used most of the movie to set up this dynamic between the two characters who have never met. The tension has been building for the audience because we know that Llwewlyn and Anton will eventually meet and we don’t know what the consequences of that interaction will be. When they do meet, the tension remains as they both run and shoot at each other in the empty streets, always guessing what the other’s next move will be. 

The sound design of this scene is unlike any traditional fight scene. It’s quiet and meticulously crafted. Each sound shocks us.  A lot can be said when characters say nothing to each other, and, instead, choose to dance a well-choreographed battle of wits. 

Josh_brolin'No Country For Old Men'Credit: Miramax Films

Bare-bones lighting 

Lighting can make all the difference in a scene. If this particular scene were shot during the day, we wouldn’t be able to see Anton’s shadow approach the hotel room door or keep the two men hidden as they run through the empty streets of the town. 

The scene starts with the well-light hotel lobby, then slowly dissolves into darkness. The only light that is constantly present in the scene is established as Llewelyn lies in his bed and wonders how Anton was able to find him coming from the street lamps outside. The street lamps illuminate the room enough in the darkness that we can see the key details—Llewelyn, the door, and the window. Even when the lamp is on, the darkness surrounds Llewelyn as his ever-approaching doom stands in front of his door as a shadow. 

No_country_pacing_0'No Country For Old Men'Credit: Miramax Films

The naturalist lighting of the night can’t help but evoke a sense of dread and tension as we know the boogieman will show his face soon enough. We never know exactly where the other character is in the scene which causes anxiety. Even as Anton shoots at Llewelyn through the windshield, we can’t see him. He is like a ghost in the night that is waiting to capture its victim. 

This is, quite simply, a masterclass in tension and suspense. As audience members, we know that this fight will end with one of the characters dead or close to death. We never know how close or far the danger is. We are haunted by Anton’s silence and Llewelyn’s coolness. 

The pacing, absence of dialogue, and minimal lighting at night add to the beautifully choreographed shoot-out over this vacant town. The scene is quiet and deliberate as it approaches its goal of shocking violence rather than surprising the audience with an ambush. It wouldn’t make sense for this neo-western if the characters just wildly attacked one another.

As the darkness presses in, we can only wait for the next action to happen. Llewelyn is utterly alone and judgment approaches. We want him to survive, but the Coen brothers have already established that whatever happens is going to happen whether we, as an audience, want it to happen or not. So we wait, tight with fear and hope, and watch the best action scene play out in front of us.  

Let us know what you think makes this scene so great in the comments!