Violence and mayhem ensue after a hunter stumbles upon a drug deal gone wrong and more than two million dollars in cash near the Rio Grande.
‘No Country for Old Men‘ is the first film by Joel & Ethan Coen to win the Best Picture statuette at the Academy Awards, and it’s comfortably one of their masterpieces. Adapting Cormac McCarthy’s novel, the directors and McCarthy are a match made in heaven, with all sharing the same bleak outlook on life and human nature. The film begins in the desolate Texas landscape, as Josh Brolin’s ‘Llewelyn Moss’ is out hunting when he stumbles upon a drug deal gone wrong and finds only one survivor begging for water, and a suitcase filled with $2million dollars. He leaves with the money and stashes it in his trailer, but on returning to give the dying man some water he is tracked down by two men in a truck, and he is forced to abandon his vehicle and send his wife (Kelly MacDonald) away to safety. This leads to the introduction of bounty hunter, Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), one of the most imposing and frightening screen presences of all time.
The game of cat and mouse between Moss and Chigurh is one of the most intense pieces of cinema I’ve ever watched – thrilling, frightening and keeps you on the edge of your seat throughout. Moss is clearly in over his head and makes several key errors, but at the same time he shows a clever knack for surviving with an ingenious plan to hide the briefcase in between a couple of motel rooms. Josh Brolin is very good as Moss, portraying the increasing desperation of the man throughout, but it’s hard to look at this film without discussing Bardem’s tour de force of a performance. Anton Chigurh is one of the most evil men ever depicted on film, a man with no ties and no emotions, and a man that uses chance via a coin toss to determine whether to spare someone’s life or not. We are introduced to him as he escapes police custody by brutally murdering a deputy, and then killing a man using a captive bolt pistol and stealing his car. Bardem plays him menacing, emotionless and cold, and he is utterly terrifying throughout the course of the film (never moreso in the terrific scene at the petrol station). It’s a truly spectacular performance, and one which earned Bardem a more than deserved Oscar for Best Actor.
When I watched the film initially, I was completely absorbed by the film up until the conclusion, where things felt a little abrupt and I suppose I didn’t quite get it, but on rewatch everything makes perfect sense. I’ve got this far without mentioning Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), the old sheriff approaching retirement who is sent out to investigate the initial crime scene and the events that follow. Bell is arguably the most important character of the film, and his various scenes sum up the worldview of McCarthy’s novel (and by extension, the Coen’s film) and are crucial in clarifying the themes of the film. Bell is an old man approaching retirement, with a family history in local law enforcement, and he comes to realise that sometimes the evil in the world is all too prevalent, with very little to hope for – this is summed up well in a conversation towards the end of the movie with his Uncle Ellis, another ex-lawman.
The Coen’s have previous form with this type of storytelling, with ‘Blood Simple‘ and ‘Fargo‘ in particular both dealing with men drawn into danger by one poor decision. Those films also deal in a pessimistic outlook on the world, where seemingly good men will do bad things given the right circumstances. The key difference with ‘No Country for Old Men‘ is the presence of pure evil in the form of Anton Chigurh, a man that is so utterly corrupted that he can’t be tamed. We see this in his interactions with his various handlers (Stephen Root and Woody Harrelson in particular), and we see it in his ‘at all costs’ hunt for Moss and the money. The western landscape creates great scope for Roger Deakins to shoot some wonderful shots, and the brothers would later move on to make a pure western in their remake of ‘True Grit‘, a genre well suited to their style and storytelling outlook.
No Country for Old Men is a thrilling, terrific adaptation of the Cormac McCarthy novel, and one of the Coen’s finest – well worth seeking out if you haven’t managed to see it yet. Next up, I’ll be checking out ‘Burn After Reading‘, a slightly different direction after this effort!
Directed By: Joel & Ethan Coen
Starring: Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin, Kelly MacDonald, Woody Harrelson, Stephen Root, Garret Dillahunt, Tess Harper and Barry Corbin