No Country for Old Men (2007) / Thriller-Drama
MPAA Rated: R for strong graphic violence and some language
Running Time: 122 min.
Cast: Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, Tommy Lee Jones, Kelly Macdonald, Woody Harrelson, Stephen Root, Garrett Dillahunt, Tess Harper, Barry Corbin
Director: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Screenplay: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen (based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy)
The Coen Brothers (Paris I Love You, The Ladykillers) head back to the genre that broke them into movies by creating another great film very much in the vein of their debut feature, Blood Simple, full of greed, murder, dirty dealings, and a teeming dose of grit and filth. For inspiration, they adapt the 2005 novel by Cormac McCarthy, staying relatively faithful to the dialogue McCarthy used in the book (including several choice voiceover monologues) but the rest is pure Coen Brothers cinematic magic at its finest. The marriage of the Coens and McCarthy are sublime, perfectly blending the brothers' mastery of sparse ambience with the ruminative nature of the literary form's philosophical elements. The result is one of the finest films of the year.
There are three main characters whose lives intersect as a result of a drug deal gone awry in southwest Texas, near the Mexican border, in 1980. Llewelyn Moss (Brolin, Grindhouse) is a Vietnam vet who has taken up with his wife Carla Jean (Macdonald, Nanny McPhee) in a trailer park nearby, living as a welder with barely two nickels to rub together, but comes into the sum of over $2 million in cash when he stumbles on the scene of a slaughter involving a money for heroin exchange. He knows that people are going to come after such a large sum of money, so he tries to hide, and later make his escape. The person who comes after the money happens to be a psychopathic killer named Chigurh (Bardem, Goya's Ghosts), a coldblooded killer with a penchant for using a captive bolt pistol (aka cattle gun) in order to kill his victims and bust through locked doors. He's leaving quite a trail of bodies on his way to find the cash. Out to help Llewelyn before he comes to harm is Sheriff Bell (Jones, A Prairie Home Companion), whose troubled past leads him to try to salvage a positive situation out of the mess, as he tries to put together the clues behind the botched drug deal to discover where the root of the problem lies.
All of the Coen works are beautifully shot and No Country for Old Men is no exception -- in fact, it may be their most elegant use of scenery to set the mood and tempo of their story to date. As with Blood Simple, they depict Texas as a film of grey characters, with no one able to fully overcome their propensity to to bad things. The Coens' best work has been in this vein, as Fargo and Miller's Crossing also showcased the corrupting power of money for those with dubious character and no chance to make it on their own. In their midst is a truly heinous killer, Chigurh, of whom one could mistakenly label as amoral. He has morals, but his are twisted severely from those we have come to know and accept as right and wrong. Such a thing as killing is not something he feels any qualms about, all predicated by the fact that those who die made their own bed and have to lie eternally in it. Those who might be undeserving of their fate can only be redeemed by some sort of cosmic intervention, determined by the flip of a coin for salvation.
Like Death incarnate, Chigurh is someone you can't reason with -- the best you can do is take him up on the offer of a bargain. Coins have often been seen as tokens of death (coins placed on the eyes, coins for Charon the ferryman, the coins themselves are images of dead people, etc.), which No Country for Men builds upon. Like the old saying, the only certainties in like are death and taxes, the two forces go hand in hand. Chigurh uses his coins in order to find his money in a variety of ways, and one's life is only saved by the flip of his coin. Dressed in all black, Death is often depicted as nothing but bones, black garb and a scythe, Black-clad Chigurh likes to drink milk (for the calcium?) and we do see his bones at some point, in a fashion. Carrying his unique weapon of choice (a cattle gun replaces the scythe), he spares the lives of those who can't see him.
In some ways, the violence and characterizations of No Country for Old Men are reminiscent of the Eastwood masterwork, Unforgiven, with its flawed characters and skewed sense of heroes and villains. Violence begets violence, and the only sense of peace one can ever attain once sullied by the world's vices of money and corruption is the complete eradication of one's enemies, though more enemies are generally made the deeper one gets into the quagmire. With the passage of time and the acquisition of wisdom, one can reverse the trend, as depicted by the character of Sheriff Bell, whose inability to understand the senseless killings haunts him so completely that he is tenacious in his quest to rid the world of unfathomable wrongs by trying to balance them out with doing right things. However, even he knows there isn't much value in being a crusader, as the tide of senseless death will never be turned by one man in an ocean of sinners. Bell, now old, knows that death is the one thing that awaits old men like himself -- if only he could stop it, he might be saved.
With a minimalist score and sparse dialogue, it's the sort of film that rewards those who pay diligent attention to the little details as they occur. The tension and intrigue are almost wholly achieved through plot developments, which aren't revealed to us fully, leaving out choice scenes (especially some killings) that require us to imagine just what may or may not happened, forcing us to search for clues through future scenes. Even when we aren't shown what may have transpired, we do feel that we know the characters well enough to understand what the likely outcome may have been. Such things may confuse viewers, and with its rather open ending, those looking for it all to be tied up in a neat and perfect bow might feel like they were cheated. Not really so, as it all falls under the category of an existential view of flawed men in a desolate part of the country, doing their best to fight for crumbs to escape their bleak existence by any means necessary.
No Country for Old Men may not be a crowd pleaser, but there's no doubt it will command the attention of any who view it, even if some may be frustrated by a particularly beguiling final half hour. To those who scratch their heads and wonder what the film is supposed to be about, all I can try to say in response is that some stories are about more than the characters we follow. Sometimes characters are merely a means to a truth, allegorical tools by which the author(s) demonstrate something about humanity and the world we live in. Some people kill, often for money or in the heat of passion. Some do it because that is what they are. As Sheriff Bell relates in his opening monologue, the old-timers were a different breed than the criminals of today (the theme that inspires the title of the film), who do bad things for reasons he can't even begin to fathom. To understand why would mean you have to be a part of it, to see it from the inside. In the case of Death, sometimes it's best not to understand.
©2008 Vince Leo