No Country for Old Men
March 7, 2008
After two lackluster efforts – the bland romantic comedy, Intolerable Cruelty (2003) and the unnecessary remake of The Ladykillers (2004) – the Coen brothers return to form with a vengeance with No Country for Old Men (2007). Even though it is an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Cormac McCarthy, the subject matter is very familiar territory for the Coens. The story revolves around a bag of money and the desperate quest by several men to acquire it and who are more than willing to kill for it. Sound familiar? Blood Simple (1985), Fargo (1996) and (rather humourously) The Big Lebowski (1998) are past Coen brothers films that feature a similar story so it is certainly material that they are drawn to and the results speak for themselves: critically-lauded and the recipient of numerous awards including four Academy Awards.
Like Blood Simple, No Country for Old Men is set in Texas and features introductory narration that makes an observation about human nature. We are introduced to Anton Chigurh (Bardem), a vicious serial killer who dispatches two people in the first five minutes. While out hunting, Llewelyn Moss (Brolin) stumbles across a drug deal gone horribly wrong. Everyone is dead save one man who is mortally wounded. Moss finds a pick-up truckload of heroin and a briefcase with two million dollars. He takes the money and returns home with it – a decision he will come to regret. Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Jones) is a veteran lawman who investigates the crime scene and finds Moss’ truck (he returned to the scene and had to abandon it when he ran into trouble) as does Chigurh who is hired by drug dealers to find the money and the man who took it. The rest of the film plays out the chain reaction of events that are kick-started by Moss’ initial actions.
Javier Bardem is chillingly effective as a sociopathic killer who sometimes lets his victims decide their fate with a coin toss. Like other cold-blooded killers in Coen brothers films (the Dane in Miller’s Crossing, Charlie Meadows in Barton Fink, and Gaear Grimsrud in Fargo) Chigurh is an enigmatic unstoppable force of nature. In contrast, Sheriff Bell is the film’s moral voice of reason and who better than Tommy Lee Jones with his kind, weathered face and equally weathered voice that instantly suggests years of life experience. He conveys the intelligence of his character by the way he works a crime scene, quickly deducing what happens through keen powers of observation much like Marge Gunderson in Fargo. Unlike Marge, however, Bell has seen better days and does not share her optimism. There is a tired sadness in his eyes that says so much about his character. Between this role and his colourful turn in Planet Terror (2007), Josh Brolin finally comes into his own as the everyman who foolishly decides to take two millions dollars that does not belong to him.
Roger Deakins’ superb cinematography perfectly captures the harsh, desolate West Texas landscape and how its vast expanse dwarfs the characters. They are at its mercy as much as they are with each other. The Coens have made a nihilistic thriller reminiscent of ones made in the 1970s. As bleak as things get in No Country for Old Men (and they get pretty bad), there is a humanistic streak as represented by Sheriff Bell and in a nice scene where he and a fellow lawman lament about the state of things and how they’ve changed for the worse which is about as close as the Coens get to social commentary in their films.
“The Making of No Country for Old Men” takes a look at how this film came together. Producer Scott Rudin brought the book to the Coens. They liked the cinematic possibilities and how it could be adapted into a genre film that subverts genre. The Coens talk about how they cast the three lead roles with the actors that were cast talking about their characters. This is a fairly standard featurette but everyone speaks eloquently about the film.
“Working with the Coens” features the cast and crew speaking admiringly of working with the Coen brothers with a lot of their crew having worked with them for years. Bardem told his American agent that he wanted to work with them but figured that he would never get the chance and was pleasantly surprised when he got the call for this film.
Finally, there is “Diary of a Country Sheriff” which takes a look at Sheriff Bell and how his character is a meditation on aging. He pursues Chigurh but does not understand him or what motivates his actions. The Coens and the cast talk about these two characters and their contrasting takes on life.