No Country for Old Men

(USA - 2007)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin, Woody Harrelson, Kelly Macdonald
Genre: Crime/Drama/Thriller
Director: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen
Screenplay: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen from Cormac McCarthy's novel
Cinematography: Roger Deakins
Composer: Carter Burwell

Hunter and hunted are largely concurrent roles in this excellent cat and mouse game, crosscutting between an ordinary man who stumbles upon a $2 million drug deal turned fatal and those who rise from the ashes to regain the lost loot. Sticking to the Blood Simple & Fargo themes of money never being free, No Country for Old Men may mark the first genuine improvement for the Coen brothers since Miller’s Crossing rather than simply a return to some of their strengths from the days before they figured the typical George Clooney or Tom Hanks fan wouldn’t notice their total lack of interest in their material and inspiration for their rendering of it. Creating a taut, riveting visually oriented narrative rather than falling into the predictable trap of relying on dialogue to advance the story, the Coen’s ability to connect the threads through editing maintains the brisk pace while regularly surprising the audience. The attention to mechanics of the character’s actions obviously doesn’t approach the level attained by Robert Bresson or Jean-Pierre Melville, but greatly exceeds the typical wide release that figures if they skip all the “boring details” and blare the music at ear drum damaging levels they’ll at least succeed in keeping the audience awake long enough to make a trip to the concession stand. No Country for Old Men is a tactical genre entry that instead skips almost all the predictable lead-ins, keeping the audience on the edge of their seat by denying them knowledge of when the stark and brutal violence will suddenly erupt amidst the vacant, seemingly tranquil western landscapes.

The crucial decision was essentially eliminating the musical score. Jaws isn’t the least bit scary because the music alerts the audience to the presence of the sharks; it’s about as subtle as a monstrous billboard that says DANGER in giant bold red letters. Hitman Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) is so terrifying because he’s unbelievably calm, postured rigidly and striking suddenly similar to a snake. He says little, and half of what he utters only truly makes sense to his twisted mind. He’s controlled evil, refusing negotiation but often offering his potential victims a 50/50 chance to live through a coin toss so long as they are willing to call heads or tails. These scenes were murder seems probable are tense due to the disquieting silence, which stretches the apparent duration, making brief scenes seem lengthy. Far more effective though are the scenes where Chigurh denies us any ability to brace ourselves, popping out of nowhere and dispatching of some poor sap who is in the wrong place at the wrong time with his captive bolt pistol.

Quiet does far more to add to the grim dread-laden atmosphere the film goes out of its way to breed. That a simple action such as a light bulb being unscrewed can make the audience feel something is certainly the sign of talented filmmakers. Ability has never been lacking from the Coen’s, but lack of conviction for their material has kept them from reaching their potential. The point of a Coen film often seems to be seeing how much disdain they can get away with having for their characters and how clever they can prove themselves to be through contriving a series of often ridiculous twists and coincidences. They’ve basically made a career out of poking fun at their glib caricatures of local yokels, generally getting a pass due to selecting one or two of their clowns to be the lovable jesters. I prefer the films of Ken Loach because he actually likes human beings, and obviously cares a great deal for his characters however weak or imperfect they may be. The Coen’s not only seem to hate their characters, which granted can be okay, but they don’t seem to have any genuine interest in them, which breeds a similar indifference in the audience, sometimes resulting in the type of pointless nihilism we get in No Country for Old Men.

No Country for Old Men doesn’t really contain a single character, it’s simply inhabited by pawns that are skillfully maneuvered. We have little idea what has shaped these dimensionless and lifeless cutouts; there’s no psychology and they don’t change or grow. We are lucky to know any more about them than they want money. Well, who doesn’t? This lack of development allows half the inconsistent characters to suit the plot by being smart one minute and stupid the next. The sketches involved include in way over his head poor greedy trailer park denizen are Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) who is resourceful but naive, superhuman hitman Chigurh, out of his depth aging small town sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), good-hearted well meaning wife Carla Jean Moss (Kelly Macdonald), and Woody Harrelson playing Woody Harrelson as a hitman.

Joel & Ethan Coen’s smug and condescending nature toward their characters is greatly decreased in No Country for Old Men. Unlike the retarded O Brain, Where Art Thou?, the brothers have clearly read the source material this time, and have reportedly made a legitimate attempt to stay as true to Cormac McCarthy’s novel. Perhaps a bigger reason than McCarthy’s influence is there’s simply a fraction of the dialogue a typical Coen film contains. Half the players are simply lined up to be dispatched of by The Bardemator. Still, the film is quite funny, as most of the Coen’s work is. There’s a keen sense of irony, for instance Moss getting warned of the dangers of hitchhiking when he’s just started fleeing after stealing the king’s ransom. Rather than being the usual Coen mockfest, they’ve purposely created an uneasy mix of poker faced comedy and abrupt pitiless violence that seems designed to make the audience question not only whether it’s safe to laugh, but whether they should be enjoying this movie. When the people are clueless, it’s not so much in the usual mentally challenged manner, but rather it stems from the inability to handle the way the world changes around them. That’s the state America has been in for a long time, everyone wishing it was better, what the founding father’s envisioned the country to be, but feeling an overwhelming helplessness to enact any positive change that extends beyond the personal level. No Country for Old Men perhaps aspires to some kind of grand statement, but is generally only successful at showing the dire consequences of personal incompetence, for someone else if not yourself.

I’ve yet to read any Cormac McCarthy, and what I’ve seen on screen in All the Pretty Horses and No Country for Old Men isn’t increasing my urgency to remedy the matter. In all fairness, if I only knew Jane Austen and Ian McEwan from Joe Wrong’s muddled lifeless CliffsNotes I wouldn’t want to read them either, and obviously I’d be missing a great deal. Given McCarthy is a highly regarded Pulitzer Prize winning novelist I expect there must be more to his novel than the seeds of this pulp B movie script, but if so the Coen’s certainly fail to convey it.

Llewelyn Moss may seem to be the star, but Bell is actually the crucial character. Bewildered by the way the world has changed and worn down by the sort of hard earned wisdom only a lawman attains, or perhaps burying Melquiades Estrada one too many times, Bell spends the film sitting around pontificating the decline of the western civilization. I’d likely find this appealing if it weren’t done in the most unenlightening and downright uninteresting manner. I’d say metaphor and symbolism were the robes the emperor hides behind, but that would be giving the dialogue a lot more credit than it deserves. There’s a good deal of pretend profundity through dime store philosophy, but the themes are too undeveloped and the thoughts too cryptic and coded to even bother trying to develop a theory on the films philosophy. Anyone could attach one of 1000 meanings, and some of them might even be profound, but they’d largely be their own concoctions. I don’t believe the film is making any legitimate attempt to make the audience understand the themes on their own level, so it just winds up coming across as a folksy version of the kind of pretension associated with the brothers who are probably busy developing their throw away philosophy for Matrix 86. But ya know, sadly that’s still a huge improvement, ya, over the interminable dialogue that plagued No Country for Old Men’s closest predecessor Fargo, ya.

Moss and Chigurh simply serve to prove Bell’s point that manners and civility have given way to selfishness, ruthlessness, coldness, and hardness. Life is war; war is life. Moss does have moments of conscience, regret, and remorse, for instance when he decides to return to the scene of the crime with water for the dying Mexican criminal who requested it, only to nearly be gunned down by other mobsters who’ve materialized in the interim. However, he’s generally almost as bad as those on his trail. If we root for him its largely due to the absence of a legitimate alternative.

Chigurh represents both the existentialism and the biblical undertones of the work, obviously at odds considering existentialism practically begins with if there’s no god... He’s kind of the angel of death searching for the meaning of life. So far he’s only found a touch of solace in the consistency of seeing through the random result of the life or death “decisions” he forces upon others who beg to be spared. Fate has brought them together, so the result of their encounter is also inevitable, thus meaningless as life is arbitrary, chance rather than free will.

The Coen’s don’t care enough about the story to bother providing a foundation for the characters or any explanation of how many of the events are possible. Hollywood normally fulfills their technology pimping agenda by using gadgets to cover their ridiculous plot contrivances, but since this is Texas in 1980 the Coen’s usually don’t even inconvenience themselves with that amount of explanation. Chigurh thus becomes The Terminator minus the futuristic methods of hunting victims down, but since he’s a serial killer in addition to being a hitman (the distinction being he regularly kills those he isn’t paid for) we are predisposed to assuming he has supernatural powers. These are perhaps enhanced by the cinematography of Roger Deakins, which typically steals the show rendering the picturesque backdrops so they yield contradictory comment on the proceedings. Deakins lights Chigurh in deep colors, bathing the madman in blue in the exteriors and orange in the interiors. Perhaps the most ridiculous aspect of No Country for Old Men is a multinational drug deal that leaves a trail of bodies far and wide seems to only be investigated by a local sheriff and a couple of his none too bright greenhorn deputies.

For me, most of the interest lies in the stylish and efficient manner the Coen’s tell their none too deep or believable story. No Country for Old Men is a genre bucking work that defies all expectations and “audience desires” at all turns, a true breath of fresh air after pandering blockbusters Intolerable Movie and The Ealing Killers.


The main character is killed offscreen, but it’s not that easy to be certain he’s dead or who is responsible (I believe the Mexican Mafia). The only really telegraphed violence comes when a car crashes into Chigurh. I was able to throw something at the screen if Moss was resurrected to extract his revenge, but the key points are everything is entirely random and America has lost it’s conduct and innocence so trouble lurks at every corner, leaving sad eyed and disconcerted citizens feeling desperate and helpless. What I really enjoyed was, despite Moss being killed with half an hour left, we are still denied a true confrontation between justice and evil. Of course, the conclusion could have been far better of Bell’s words actually meant something. We’re always left to scratch our heads then conjecture on what may have happened. You’ll either love the complete and total lack of resolution to all the threads the puppet masters have intertwined or you’ll want to burn their reels.



* Copyright 2007 - Raging Bull Movie Reviews *