Defying Convention: The Art of the Off-screen Death
[The following essay contains MAJOR SPOILERS for No Country for Old Men and The Bad Sleep Well; you have been warned!]
Spoiler alert: In the Coen Brothers’ adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, Llewelyn Moss—a traditional action star if ever there was one—is unceremoniously (and controversially) gunned down about twenty minutes before the movie ends—not by the borderline supernaturally implacable central villain, Anton Chigurh, but by random, anonymous cartel thugs. Worst of all, the audience isn’t even allowed to witness his last stand; like Tommy Lee Jones’ Sheriff Bell, we arrive too late, only glimpsing the bloody aftermath of the slaughter.
Koichi Nishi, the protagonist of Akira Kurosawa’s slow-burn thriller The Bad Sleep Well, meets a similarly abrupt, off-screen demise. His quest for vengeance ultimately accomplishes little of consequence, and the corrupt businessmen that orchestrate his murder escape significant punishment.
Logic dictates that these undepicted deaths should be anticlimactic… but in my opinion, the very fact that they remain unseen makes them far more powerful and memorable—chiefly because of how elegantly they subvert conventional cinematic language. The best storytellers know how to make the viewer feel like an active participant in the drama, rather than a passive observer (Scorsese keeps the camera inside the boxing ring in Raging Bull, Mendes simulates a continuous, unbroken take in 1917, et cetera). By withholding vital narrative information, however, the Coens and Kurosawa remind us that we don’t actually have any agency or control over the plot; like the supporting characters (Bell, Carla Jean Moss, Yoshiko Nishi, Tatsuo Iwabuchi), we are utterly incapable of affecting the outcome of the impending tragedy.
After we’ve spent hours becoming invested in the struggles of such sympathetic (albeit flawed) heroes as Llewelyn and Nishi, losing them so unexpectedly and unglamorously feels like a solid punch to the gut—and it hurts so damn good.