No Country for Old Men (2007)
Joel and Ethan Coen are two of cinema’s most talented oddballs. Together, they’ve created some of the most intricate, eclectic, and best movies of the last 25 years. Their last two efforts, 2003’s Intolerable Cruelty and 2004’s remake of The Ladykillers, didn’t feel like Coen movies; they felt like they were compromised and missed the artistically deft touch. As a result, both movies were mild failures for filmmakers that have a series of genre-spanning masterpieces to their name. No Country for Old Men is the first time the brothers have adapted someone else’s work, in this instance Pulitzer Prize-winning author Cormac McCarthy’s 2005 novel. Not too shabby if I say so. Fortunately for all lovers of film, the Coens have embraced McCarthy’s blood-soaked tale and crafted an exciting, honest, and intensely provocative modern Western that stands out as one of the greatest films of the year.
In dusty West Texas, Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin) is out hunting the lonely plains when he discovers a blood trail. It leads him to four empty cars riddled with bullet holes, dead bodies collecting flies, and a sack containing two million dollars in cash. The signs are all there that this was a drug deal gone badly, and two million will never go unnoticed, but Moss sees this as an opportunity of a lifetime and takes the money. The men in power have hired Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) to find their drugs and money and exact retribution. Chigurh’s preferred method of killing involves a high-pressured air canister that can blow out doorknobs and human brains. Chigurh chases after Moss all the while Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) is following the trail of death to try and save Moss or any future innocent victims.
What a fine-tuned, nerve-wracking, and engrossing cat-and-mouse thriller this film is. The action is brief but the buildup can be nearly unbearable to endure. The tension is magnificent. Chigurh chases Moss from hideout to hideout and some of the tensest moments are just waiting. There’s a moment where Moss is calling the front desk of his newest motel and we hear the phone ringing unanswered again and again from the hall, all the while Chigurh’s footsteps inch closer. But it’s the moments of silence that cause the most dread. When Moss is trying to recover his loot, all the while Chigurh is in the opposite motel room, it becomes a balancing act of sound and silence. No Country for Old Men is expertly orchestrated to involve the use of sound as a tool for high suspense. None of our main three characters inhabit a scene together. Sure Moss and Chigurh shoot at one another but even then it’s short and focused on waiting for response and counter response. Moss is no dummy and he sets up some traps for his would-be dispatcher. No Country for Old Men is unnerving, intelligent, near flawless entertainment.
Chigurh, as masterfully played by Bardem, is the stuff of nightmares. I was literally afraid to go home after seeing this movie and it is because No Country for Old Men fashions a villain so methodical, so cold-blooded, and so downright deadly and cunning that I felt as if he could very well be residing under my bed at night waiting. Bardem is hypnotically horrifying and the Coen brothers establish early on how ruthless their cinematic boogeyman is. The very first moment we’re introduced to Chigurh he escapes from police custody and strangles the inattentive officer on duty. He drags him to the floor and chokes the life out of him, but the Coens position the camera not on the last desperate kicks of the officer but on the face of Anton Chigurh, and it is nasty. His eyes are bugged out and his intensity comes across as sadistically jubilant. He seems like a caged animal finally let loose. It’s a scary yet fascinating introduction to a deadly character.
Chigurh is a humorless and determined man, and every scene he steps into instantly changes. A gas attendant casually asks Chigurh about the weather and gets on his bad side and the stone-faced killer in the Dutch boy haircut proceeds to press the poor man with increasing agitation, yet Chigurh always speaks in such a placid tone that makes him far creepier. He’s a maniac that never raises his voice. Chigurh then corrals the man into one of his signatures, having a victim decide their fate by the flip of a coin. Before the man can say anything the coin is flipped, Chigurh intones to “call it,” and the man nervously repeats that he needs to know what he’s at stake to win. “Everything,” Chigurh responds. This scene starts off so innocuous but becomes monumentally unsettling thanks to the rising dread and Bardem’s deeply committed portrayal. Bardem is alarming, ferocious, grimly efficient, mesmerizing, and deserves an Oscar win, not just a mere nomination, for what is his finest performance to date.
There are many ways to describe Chigurh, but it seems most appropriate to speak of him as nothing short but the full-tilt vengeance of God. He’s a hired killer, yes, but that doesn’t stop him from killing indiscriminately. He murders several innocent victims, he murders his competition sent out to nab Moss just because it insults him, and even after the money no longer becomes a concern, Chigurh still plans to continue his wrath out of sheer moral principle. He made a promise of swooping vengeance and he will stick to it. This means that anyone could die at any moment while onscreen with Chigurh, and No Country for Old Men has plenty of surprises as it toys around with our baited anticipation. When Chigurh gets the drop on his competition he doesn’t shoot the man immediately; instead the scene plays out for an agonizing length even after we listen to the room phone ring several times, and then blam! Chigurh answers the phone and casually raises his boots so the pooling blood doesn’t touch his feet. This is the most memorable incarnation of soulless evil I have seen in the movies since Hannibal Lector came to iconic form in 1991’s Silence of the Lambs.
Brolin is having quite a career year for himself after compelling turns in American Gangster (where he also shoots a dog), In the Valley of Elah, and Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror half of Grindhouse. Brolin gives the audience a figure to root for even though he never actually displays true heroism, just survival instincts. Jones serves as a wise and guiding father figure that feels out of place in a world that is becoming increasingly, shockingly violent. It’s a role that Jones has performed before but it’s a role that fits the actor exceptionally well. Woody Harrelson pops up as a charming and laid back handler trying to convince Moss to give up before things get worse. Kelly Macdonald, as Moss’ wife, cuts through the darkness in a refreshing performance.
The technical craftsmanship is on par with previous Coen excellence. Roger Deakins’ cinematography is exquisite, Carter Burwell’s score barely makes its presence felt, and the editing is tight and focused. The sound design, which I’ve already discussed in detail, deserves an Oscar. This being a Coen brothers’ film, it wouldn’t be complete without some dark humor to punctuate the bleakness. They have a perfect ear for local vernacular and Texas shorthand, so the dialogue feels sharp but realistically twangy without being condescending as some had accused Fargo (I do not agree with this accusation).
What works in the favor of No Country for Old Men may perhaps be its undoing for a mainstream audience. The film works against conventions and this provides for some stellar surprises and upheavals, none of which is bigger than killing a certain character off-screen. No Country for Old Men definitely seems like it’s laying stage for a climactic showdown and then one key figure has been bumped off by a group of ancillary characters that have little overall bearing over the plot (I have read that the same gap happens in McCarthy’s novel). If this doesn’t perturb audiences then the final 10 minutes ought to do it. There’s no sense of closure for the movie and this will frustrate many, but it all fits rather nicely with the movie’s highly nihilistic tone. Like Chigurh’s coin, the film focuses much on the randomness and cruelty of fate. By sticking to this ethic, the Coen bothers are eschewing the traditional Hollywood rulebook and playing around with our expectations for characters and plot. The outlook isn’t too sunny for many involved. It works and demands an audience remain on edge for fear that anything could happen at any moment. However, don’t say I didn’t warn you if you walk out of No Country for Old Men and say, “What was that all about?”
No Country for Old Men is exactly the kind of material the Coen brothers needed to return to form. This is a lean and stirring thriller that plays to their strengths and echoes some of their most riveting and twisty work, like Blood Simple and Fargo. In many ways the film feels like a Western, a high-stakes drama, and a tragedy that takes its time to unravel. It may have taken some time but the Coen brothers are back, baby, and No Country for Old Men is fit to stand beside their hallowed pedigree of cinematic classics.
Nate’s Grade: A
Posted on November 20, 2007, in 2007 Movies and tagged best picture, book, coen brothers, dark, javier bardem, josh brolin, kelly macdonald, oscars, period film, thriller, tommy lee jones, western, woody harrelson. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.