The cinematic glories on display during Joel and Ethan Coen’s masterpiece NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN are delivered fast and furious, right off the bat, and continue all the way to the end. One of their very best films (I’m tempted to say that it’s their best of all time) and easily one of the top American films of the year, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN succeeds on multiple levels; it’s a terrifying thriller, a layered character study, a balls-out chase movie, and a poetic meditation on violence and man’s ability to inflict pain and suffering. In other words, it’s not a romantic comedy, not the least bit sentimental, and hardly a family movie event. The Coens have explored crime-noir in some of their finest pictures (FARGO, BLOOD SIMPLE, MILLER’S CROSSING), but with NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, they stare down the conventions of the genre and brilliantly upend them, leaving the audience in a shocked stupor by the end of the proceedings. Filmic nihilism has rarely been this much fun and entertaining. But beyond the obvious merits that the writing, acting, and production values offer, it’s the Coen’s effortless ability to transcend the genre through their amazing adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel that pushes NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN into unforgettable territory.
The set up is deceptively simple. Llewelyn Moss, a welder and rancher played with rugged machismo by Josh Brolin (having a tremendous year with this film, AMERICAN GANGSTER, IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH, and PLANET TERROR) stumbles upon a drug-deal gone wrong out in the desert. Bodies litter the ground, dried pools of blood have formed, and bullet casings act like carpeting. On the ground is a suitcase; Moss opens it and finds cash. Lots of cash. Around $2 million to be exact. He takes the case back to his trailer, a decision that will change his life forever. Enter Anton Chigurh, homicidal maniac to the extreme, portrayed by the marvelous Spanish actor Javier Bardem, in a breathtaking performance. Chigurh is like the Terminator; no remorse, his cold eyes staring through the souls of his potential victims. Wielding a compressed-air canister that he’s fashioned into a quietly lethal weapon, Chigurh has been hired to retrieve the money; quitting isn’t an option for this man. Meanwhile, a seen-it-all sheriff who’s close to retirement named Ed Bell (the always smooth Tommy Lee Jones, who’s having a banner year himself between his work in this film and IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH) is picking up the bloody pieces of the crime, trying to figure out who’s who and what’s what. The colorful supporting cast includes Woody Harrelson as a calm bounty hunter, Garrett Dillahunt as a simple deputy, Kelly MacDonald as Moss’s naïve wife, and Stephen Root as a shady businessman.
NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN works breathlessly as a thriller first and foremost. The Coen’s have an exacting eye in their cinematography choices, and are aided by the incredibly talented director of photography Roger Deakins, who also shot this year’s elegiac Western THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBER FORD. Deakins and the Coen’s have worked together many times in the past, and here, their visual shorthand is remarkable. Dawn in the desert takes on a sinister tone, and what the Coens and Deakins do with shadow, nighttime pursuits, and streetlamp lighting is the stuff of sweaty-palms and white-knuckles. The tight, perfectly controlled editing by the Coens (under their usual pseudonym Roderick Jaynes) amps the tension to the max, as does the almost non-existent musical score; the Coens know that silence and sound effects can sometimes be the scariest choice. The sound on a light bulb being unscrewed has haunted my ear drums for the last week and a half. The action sequences are pitched in a hyper-reality that the Coens frame, block, and cut with supreme visceral impact. Blood sprays, bullets fly, and bodies are torn up. If you’re a fan of perfectly measured filmmaking technique and brazenly violent shootouts, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN delivers in spades. However, it’s what NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN says about the violent condition of man that separates it from other genre entries, and elevates it into the category of masterpiece. The last third of the film, already under attack by some critics and audiences as too oblique and not conventionally satisfying, is precisely why this film is an example of perfect storytelling and filmmaking, and one of the best crime thrillers in the history of cinema.
Impossible to fully discuss without spoiling the film (and I wouldn’t dare do such a thing), the last act of the film is contingent upon what a certain character doesn’t do. And in that particular moment, and along with a couple of other storytelling decisions that the Coens make, it’s clear that NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN is operating on a different playing field than most Hollywood thrillers. What might have become routine and predictable never comes to pass, and the audience, forced to work their brains in order to put together everything that has transpired, has to quickly decide if not seeing something (a major character’s death) is a cheat or a stroke of genius. I tend to agree with the latter. The Coen’s, apparently remaining quite faithful to McCarthy’s original story (I have not yet read the book), make a leap in time during the last act that might seem confusing to some people in the audience. Their interest in uncovering why people behave the way they do is what drives this hot-blooded movie, and their reluctance as filmmakers to play anything safe is what gives the film its bracingly menacing edge.
In FARGO, which still may be their best film ever (I need to see NO COUNTY FOR OLD MEN more than once in order to know for certain if it’s the best in their oeuvre), the Coen’s crafted a warm and caring character for the audience to root for—Marge Gunderson’s easy-going, stamp painting husband, Norm (the wonderful John Carroll Lunch). Norm, along with Marge, is a sympathetic creation, and the two of them are characters for the audience to identify with. They also lightened an otherwise dark tale of murder and lies with an air of natural, honest charm. In NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, the Coens don’t provide the audience with any such characters. Moss is a true anti-hero, and while you are rooting for him, it’s more out of fear than genuine love for the character. Similarly, Jones’s Sheriff, while likeable, exists in a state of spiritual crisis, and the decisions he makes run counter to audience expectations of what a “good cop” should do. That the film is called NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN is telling in its depiction of evil and casual nihilism; the men of NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN have seen enough killing for two lifetimes.
The acting from the three male leads is extraordinary. Bardem cuts a portrait of a fierce killer so convincingly that he’ll be getting the stink eye in the street from everyday people for the rest of his life. Chigurh, which when pronounced in the film rhymes with “sugar” (ha-ha), is all death all the time; anyone who appears in a scene with him is in danger of losing their life. Sporting a funny, off-putting haircut and an implacable, stoic expression on his face, Chigurh would eat Hannibal Lectre’s liver without washing it down with a fine Chianti. In the world of movie bad-guys, Bardem is the new king. Ruthless and determined, the Coens have created a signature villain that feeds off genre expectations (again, he’s like a flesh and blood Terminator) yet rises above the expected and into the realm of monster incarnate. It’s a frightening, mesmerizing tour de force that will surely land Bardem an Oscar nomination. Brolin, hot off his scene stealing turn in AMERICAN GANGSTER, brings a quiet, manly quality to the role of Llewelyn. Tossing off dead-pan one liners and rarely cracking a smile through his oily moustache, it’s the sort of role that Nick Nolte would have nailed in his youth. Brolin crackles with intensity and human believability, an element lacking in many modern crime thrillers. As foolish as some of the decisions are that he makes, you never question for one moment that given the circumstances, you’d act any differently if you were in his shoes. It’s a slow-burn performance that also deserves award recognition. Jones, who owned the somber Iraq war drama IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH earlier this fall, takes on the role of the Sheriff in a comfortable, relaxed fashion, but always hints at something more under the surface. The film is bookended with the Sheriff’s voiceover, and through Jones’s melancholic delivery, the audience peers into the heart and soul of a tired, weathered cop. He’s a guy who has seen too much violence in his life, and who questions how much more he needs to see before it’s time to call it quits. It’s a contemplative piece of internal acting yet as a result of his estimable skill, Jones is able to project to the viewer the idea of a man at his limits.
Nothing short of spectacular, films like NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN are the reason why I go to the cinema. Art has the ability to both entertain and challenge an audience, and with this flawlessly constructed piece of crime fiction, the Coens blow the lid off of the genre and smash it to smithereens. I have nothing negative to say about this film; from the terse, mordantly funny dialogue to the amazingly detailed performances, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN is a beautifully paced thriller with zero plot fat or stupid story detours. Focused, wholly engrossing, and shockingly violent, it’s the kind of picture that sneaks up on the viewer and throws your head in a vice. A feeling of awe and exhilaration swept over me as the end credits began to roll, and it was then that I realized that I’d seen history in the making; the Coens have crafted one of the best noir thrillers to come out of Hollywood. NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN is one of the best films of the year.