By 2007, as an 18 year old, I was already a seasoned film watcher. But I wasn’t yet a true film lover. That was all to change when I watched the next film of my series…
No Country For Old Men (The Coens, 2007)
Since their 1984 debut Blood Simple, Ethan and Joel Coen have had a string of successes (and failures), and more than won their share of acclaim. 1996’s Fargo was in my view their most complete film. That was until No Country For Old Men came around. Possibly best described as a neo-western/crime-thriller, this is the film that contains perhaps the least of the Coens’ signature quirk but also the one that best displays their prodigious film making ability.
The story, adapted from a Cormac McCarthy novel, is not complicated- caravan-living 30 something Vietnam Vet Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) comes across a drug deal cum shootout and a bag containing 2 million dollars. The people who want their money back hire assassin Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) to track Moss and the money down. Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) is the Sheriff following the trail of blood and cruelty in hope of stopping Chigurh and saving Moss. How the story plays out isn’t all that surprising, it is the reading between the lines that sets the film apart from the rest.
Bardem steals the film with his remarkable turn as the killing machine with his own twisted code and rightfully walked away with a Best Supporting Actor Oscar (and basically every other award going), but it is in the scenes featuring Sheriff Bell that we really begin to understand what McCarthy and the Coens are after here. Set in 1980 in the barren Trans-Pecos region of Western Texas, where the reach of the modern world is belatedly taking hold. Bell is a relic of another time, unable to fathom the iniquity of the violence around him and seemingly powerless to stop those involved. He feels the world around him has moved beyond him and there is nothing he can do to change that. It is the nihilistic view common to Coen films, but this time with added edge that Bell had hope and desires for what the world was but they escaped him and he was left with what it truly is.
Of course, that is only one of the major themes of the film, or at least the one that best fits the title. I could spend hours discussing them but the other I want to focus on is that of morals and choices. The film, never judging in its depictions of any character, puts forward the three main characters and challenges the audience to decide who is doing right and wrong. Sheriff Bell is the most obviously morally sound character. A lawman who shows every intent of wanting to catch the bad guys and help the victimized, he makes sound choices throughout and never chooses the easy way out. What stops him is a crippling sense of helplessness. He feels outmatched and unable to keep up with the changing world, or his perception of it.
Moss is also mostly portrayed as moral. He seems to have a good relationship with his wife, those who know him question his ability to do wrong and he even gets in trouble by going back to the shootout to give a dying man water. But he does take the money and he refuses the help of the police when his quest is all but lost. He makes morally questionable choices due to circumstances, not because he is or isn’t a bad person. He is the classic ‘wrong place wrong time’.
Chigurh is the other side of the coin. A man so morally corrupt that he scarcely seems human. He takes choice completely out of the equation, operating on fate and the deranged use of a coin toss to put someone’s life to chance. Killing at random and posing philosophical questions to people who know he is about to kill them- he is evil incarnate and a good reason to side with Bell’s point of view that it has all got out of hand. Yet, as Bell’s Uncle Ellis tells him, Chigurh is nothing new, monsters have been around since day dot. It is whether or not a man chooses to stand up to what he can’t comprehend, something Bell is obviously no longer able to do.
On the technical side of things, the Coens are operating on a very high level here. Besides their directing (mostly Ethan), they also edited the film together. The nearly 2 hour run time flies by, the brothers showing exactly what they want to show us and nothing else. It is economical and purposefully paced. Likewise, Carter Burwell’s score can only be described as minimalist. There are regular intervals with no score at all, the Coen’s deciding the tension created through silence was all that was needed. A risky gamble that pays off in spades. The great Roger Deakins, who was nominated for his 6th of 13 Cinematography Oscars (for 0 wins), is typically brilliant. Once again, there are no great flourishes here, as there are in his other nomination for 2007, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. It is just tight and masterful cinematography, with Deakins in full control of his work and he and the Coens knowing exactly how they want this film to look.
I’ve really only scratched the surface of what is one of the more thematically interesting films of recent years. I’ve barely touched on the acting besides Bardem, which is excellent across the board. Brolin does the best work of his career and TLJ brings the film together perfectly. In smaller roles, Kelly Macdonald, Woody Harrelson, Garret Dillahunt and Barry Corbin all do excellent work. It is just one of those rare occasions where everything works exactly as it should, culminating in one of the finest films I’ve ever seen.