Movie Review: No Country for Old Men

[Originally posted on April 4, 2008 at AmericanFreethought.com.]

Or as I like to call it, This Territory Is Unsuitable for Elderly GentlemenNo Country for Old Men is that other most-talked about film of 2007, the first being There Will Be Blood. They’re both bleak and brutal films – so bleak that the Vatican newspaper declared that “Hollywood was moved this year by films that were sober, full of violence and above all without hope.” As if “99% of humanity is doomed to Eternal Damnation” weren’t sober, violent, and hopeless enough.

Based on the Cormac McCarthy novel and set in 1980, No Country is the story of Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), a West Texas redneck who stumbles across a drug deal gone bad while out hunting pronghorn. With a half-dozen bullet-riddled bodies baking in the sun, Llewelyn finds a case containing $2 million – although nobody ever counts this money. Had Llewelyn bothered to count it, he’d easily have found the Zippo-sized transponder hidden in one of the bundles – the transponder that enables a stone-cold killer named Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) to track Llewelyn down. Chigurh, with his mop-top haircut and silenced shotgun, uses a captive bolt pistol attached to a compressed-air cylinder to dispatch certain victims.

Tracking both Llewelyn and Chigurh is Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), a small-town lawman who feels “overmatched” by the rising world of drug trafficking and its associated violence.

No Country is a strange movie, perhaps to be expected of any film written and directed by the Coen brothers. The three principals – Llweleyn, Chigurh and Bell – never actually meet (although Llewelyn and Chigurh share a brief late-night exchange of gunfire). It’s never clear who Chigurh works for, although it’s suggested that he works for a respectable businessman played by Stephen Root.

It’s easy to see how No Country gave There Will Be Blood some stiff competition in the Oscar race for Best Picture, although in my opinion it’s the former that’s overmatched by the latter.  The cinematography is wonderful, particular in its use of the West Texas landscape. Brolin, Bardem, and Jones completely submerge themselves in their respective roles. Jones is Ed Tom Bell, with his mumbly drawl and twang and casual mien. Bardem is fascinating as Anton Chigurh, more than just the blank face of a killer. Chigurh engages his marks in playful, edgy conversation (“What business is it of yours where I’m from, friend-o?”) and even allows the toss of a coin to decide whether or not he kills his victims (“Just… call it.”). The cast of supporting actors add convincing local color to the film – the West Texas of No Country is populated by pudgy ladies with beehive hairdos and potbellied gentry with weary faces. If the Coen brothers didn’t have locals cast, the actors they selected did a superb job in assimilating the accent. Particularly noteworthy is Kelly Macdonald as Llewelyn’s wife Carla Jean – moviegoers will be shocked to learn that she’s actually Scottish!

Working out who’s the good guy and who’s the bad guy is one of the puzzles of this film. While Chigurh is a ruthless killer, he does have a twisted consistency to his worldview; although, it’s ironic that while he obviously believes in fate, he pursues his goals with a willpower worthy of a hero. Llewelyn is motivated solely by greed – he leaves a wounded man to die when he discovers the money, and he only sends Carla Jean away because it will make it easier to hang on to the money. Llewelyn even refuses to give up the money to Chigurh to save Carla Jean’s life (in fairness, Llewelyn can hardly be expected to believe an assassin like Chigurh). Sheriff Bell, while longing for the good old days of quaint, workaday crimes, is ultimately a feckless lawman.

The new DVD release includes three behind-the-scenes mini-docs (“Working with the Coens,” “The Making of No Country for Old Men,” and “Diary of a Country Sheriff”) but no optional cast/crew commentaries, which is disappointing.

In the end, No Country for Old Men is a gripping and thought-provoking film, and a faithful adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel. It’s one of (if not the) finest of the Coen brothers’ movies, and their snagging of the Oscar signals their ascent to Hollywood’s top tier.

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