Judge Jennifer Malkowski assures you that this masterpiece depicts no country for old men, old women, children of any age, or viewers clinging to that last lingering shred of faith in humanity.
Our reviews of Javier Bardem 3-Film Collection (published December 18th, 2012), No Country For Old Men (Blu-Ray) (published March 11th, 2008), and No Country For Old Men: 2-Disc Collector's Edition (Blu-Ray) (published April 7th, 2009) are also available.
"What's the most you ever lost on a coin toss?"—Anton Chigurh
The Coen brothers move some of the snowy Fargo's themes down south to the West Texas desert in the existential crime thriller No Country For Old Men, adapted from the novel by Cormac McCarthy. What's different this time, other than the scenery, is a persistent nihilism in the film's tone as relentless as the violence on screen. Viewers brave enough to withstand these assaults on both the spirit and the gut will relish this dark masterpiece.
Facts of the Case
An elaborate web of searching and chasing all over West Texas forms when local welder Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin, In the Valley of Elah) makes a surprising discovery out in the desert. It's a summer's day in 1980 and Moss, out hunting, comes upon a gathering of pick-up trucks and dead bodies left behind after a drug deal gone wrong. Since "the last man standing" is no longer standing, Moss takes two million in cash from the corpse and heads back home to his trailer and his wife Carla Jean (Kelly MacDonald, Nanny McPhee). But an act of compassion later that night makes him the target of a group of Mexican drug dealers, the police, and—most dangerously—an enigmatic killer, Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem, Before Night Falls), hired to recover the money. Soon after, another man, Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson, North Country) is also hired and joins the chase. These violent pursuits leave behind a trail of carnage, which local Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada), the title "old man," follows in a state of moral incomprehension.
Warning: Spoilers for this film and for Fargo lie ahead. With all the straight reviews already out on the film, I decided to offer up a slightly different approach here.
My girlfriend and I went to go see No Country For Old Men in the theater and with about 20 minutes remaining, she hit a breaking point and sat out the rest of the feature in the lobby. When we got home, she was visibly upset—teary even—and we talked for the next half-hour about whether movies like this one should be made at all. You might be thinking she couldn't take all the blood (ironically, far more than in There Will Be Blood), but it wasn't that at all. It was really the moral darkness so nakedly on display that she couldn't deal with, and the fact that anyone would choose to display it so nakedly in a film. I appreciated the merits of the display, myself, but I'm a good girlfriend, so instead of arguing the point I played shoulder-to-cry-on and went with her to see Enchanted the following weekend.
From the opening shots of the barren, West Texas landscape with Sheriff Bell's narration over them, the film announces itself as a meditation on the nature of violence and our human responses to it. Jones, who really masters the weariness and disbelief of this tough country lawman, intones:
"The crime you see now, it's hard to even take its measure. It's not that I'm afraid of it. I always knew you had to be willin' to die to even do this job. But I don't want to push my chips forward and go out and meet somethin' I don't understand. A man'd have to put his soul at hazard. He'd have to say, 'Okay. I'll be a part of this world.'"
Whether or not to be a part of this world, and how he can possibly do anything about the things that happen in it, is what Bell struggles with throughout the film. And we struggle with him, as he is the most morally agreeable character. More than that, though, he is one of two characters in whom we invest hope—and hope is mighty scarce in this "country." When faced with the cold sterility of Anton Chigurh's manner of killing and the utter lack of humanity in it, we hope that somehow this tough but compassionate sheriff and what he stands for can triumph. Framed late in the film in a doorway and illuminated by his patrol car's headlights, Bell's strong silhouette visually harkens back to the masculine efficacy of the classic Western cowboy—here also the Western lawman, backed by moral order of civilization.
The Western cowboy also questioned whether to "be a part of this world," but he usually did decide to, at least for a spell, and while he was there, he did things—shot up the black hats, saved the townspeople, got the girl, etc. Sometimes that cowboy was also the Sheriff, the guy who did put down roots and set himself to the task of law and order, which he often succeeded in upholding. Hell, even the significantly less masculine pregnant Margie Gunderson caught the bad guys in Fargo. But this far into No Country for Old Men, we understand that the old cowboys don't stand a chance in this new world, and that if Bell "push[es] [his] chips forward" to meet this thing, he's going to lose them for something he really doesn't understand. Fargo's Margie struggles with this incomprehension, too. When she catches her killer she tells him, "There's more to life than a little money, ya know. Don't ya know that? And here ya are. And it's a beautiful day…I just don't understand it." The difference here is that in Fargo, it's not a beautiful day (freezing, foggy, snow on the ground), but the optimistic Margie can see it that way. And when the case is closed, she can go home to her husband, announce, "We're doin' pretty good," and look forward with him to the birth of their child. Sheriff Bell goes home to his spouse, too, though the case never closes. But he can no longer see that "it's a beautiful day," even though it is. Unlike Margie, the things Bell sees that he doesn't understand spiritually defeat him, leaving him only with melancholy dreams about his sheriff father and the old days.
The other character we invest hope in, the one who maybe understands this world a little bit better—or maybe not—is the younger cowboy, Moss. Joel Coen describes him by saying, "The book was about a good guy, a bad guy, and he's kind of the guy in between." We hope that Moss can defeat Chigurh not by the force of his moral character, like Bell's lawman, but by his sheer grit and hands-on competence. We see him demonstrate this competence over and over in the film, from his tracking abilities to his familiarity with weapons to his innovative use of tools when hiding the money. His wife Carla Jean testifies to his toughness and determination:
Sheriff Bell: "These people'll kill 'em, Carla Jean. They won't quit."
When Moss's first (and only) face-off against Chigurh ends in a draw, we're given reason to hope that his determination will be enough. But Moss can't win because he is not pure in purpose and operates mostly on the basis of self-interest. In this world, you can be a white hat like Bell and mostly stay out of the way, or you can be a black hat like Chigurh and mostly succeed. Moss straddles that moral line in the sand, neither passing up a chance to steal two million nor leaving a dying man in the desert without water. It is his indecisive morality, in fact, that prevents his clean getaway (or at least hastens his doom) when he decides to go back to the scene of the crime and bring water to the dying Mexican. In a film that posits chance as the one great power in life, this bit of moral cause-and-effect doesn't quite seem to fit. And Moss's inevitable failure is so certain that the Coens brilliantly deny us even the catharsis of a final showdown: Bell finds Moss dead on the floor of a cheap motel, not defeated by his nemesis Chigurh, but more commonly slaughtered by his other pursuers, the Mexicans.
And what a nemesis Chigurh is. When the dying Mexican asks Moss to close the door to his truck to prevent him from the "lobos" of the desert, Moss scoffs at him, "There ain't no lobos" and leaves the door open. But as Moss soon finds out, there are wolves—in particular, one very dangerous wolf named Anton Chigurh—in this story. The film's showcase character, partly because of his incredibly eerie portrayal by the talented Bardem, Chigurh is a mystery that we slowly and partially unravel over the course of the film. The other hired badass, Carson Wells offers the most simplistic take on Chigurh: "He's a psychopathic killer, but so what? There's plenty o' them around." There is no doubt that Chigurh is a psychopathic killer, but after we see the way he brutally and mechanically strangles a police officer with the handcuffs that confine him—applying so much pressure that he bursts an artery in the officer's neck—we know for sure that there aren't "plenty" like him around. Bardem's calmly maniacal expression here convinces us of that much.
Chigurh kills like a machine, but he is also a student of humanity. One of the most interesting moments for his character is when he breaks into Moss's trailer, takes a bottle of milk from the fridge and sits down with it on Moss's couch. Chigurh sits there for a long moment, looking at his reflection in the television screen, and we can see him wrapping his mind around this man he pursues, the life he leads. Chigurh is no common killer, and even Wells comes to nuance his view, though, just before Chigurh murders him:
Wells: "Do you have any idea how crazy you are?"
Chigurh might be crazy, but he has a certain consistency in that madness, which Wells also half-understands: "Might even say he has principles. Principles that transcend money or drugs or anything like that." Yes, we might say he has principles, but exactly what they are and how they operate we cannot fully say. Bardem sees his character as believing only in fate, as represented by his fondness for using a coin toss to determine (we presume) whether he will kill the person standing in front of him. In the most memorable scene of the film, Chigurh strikes up conversation with a middle aged gas station attendant and uses his coin for such a purpose:
Chigurh: "Call it."
Facing her own fate-determined-by-coin-toss Carla Jean accuses him of using the coin as a moral shield, "The coin don't have no say. It's just you." We don't see what transpires after she refuses to call the coin, opting instead to call Chigurh on his rationalizations, but Carla Jean does die at his hand—whether the coin contributed or not.
But just as we're prompted by Carla Jean to question the real power of fate and chance in the film, offered instead the option of the individual as the source of power, the most powerful individual in the film, Chigurh, is taken down by a chance car accident. He isn't even breaking the law as he is slammed into by a car running a red light through an otherwise empty intersection. But the film doesn't let us escape with a simplistic it's-all-chance ending, either. Chigurh walks away from the crash, however badly injured he is, and we also know that even this bizarre, built-up villain is hardly the root of all the evil we see on screen. That's why we return to Bell at the end, who has just retired and visited with an older retired sheriff, Ellis. Bell has been building up to a realization that "the crime you see now" isn't fundamentally different from crime at any other time in history. Throughout the film, he's been clinging to the notion that he's up against a new kind of bad—something that his father, also a sheriff, never had to face and something that he can't look to the past to figure out how to deal with. He blames the change on declining morals in young people over coffee with another police officer, who agrees, "It's the tide, it's the dismal tide. It is not the one thing," but then concedes, "none of that explains your man [Chigurh], though." Then later Ellis tells him a story about another lawmen back in 1909 who was brutally killed in cold blood, concluding, "What you got ain't nothin' new."
For me, this insight justifies the setting of the novel and the film in 1980: the events are close enough to the present that we can't dismiss them as the irrelevant past, but not so close that we mistake No Country for a bit of current affairs. This is a story that has some ambitious, timeless messages—about causality, chaos, violence, and human nature. In the end, we find Bell settling into a restless retirement, coming to terms with what he's seen and with his stated disappointment that God has not come into his life, as he expected Him to in old age. If we can say nothing else for sure about No Country, we can certainly identify its world as a Godless one. Some have compared Chigurh to the devil, but to me he conjures a much more atheistic vision of evil, (falsely) surrendering himself to the whims of chance in a random universe governed by no one. Just ask the pile of innocent victims gunned down in the course of this battle just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time: "What's the most you ever lost on a coin toss?"
Now for the technical bits: No Country is a film that honors the practices looking and listening very highly in its story, and that care is matched by Miramax in this DVD release. Despite the gritty roughness of the landscapes that form the background for their story, the Coen brothers don't match that grittiness with a grainy image quality, favoring a smooth looking monochrome of dusty browns that is well-preserved on this DVD release.
Sounds, too, are nicely rendered, though the pleasures of listening here are subtle, as the soundtrack features no traditional score, instead using faint atmospheric humming noises at points—a bit like David Lynch's, but not so industrial. Still, viewers may appreciate the details of sound and image more because they are watching characters whose lives depend upon their stillness and attentiveness to these perceptual clues.
In the special features department, we get three featurettes, but no commentary track. The Coen brothers have never been fans of doing directors' commentaries, and I think No Country might be the type of film that really wouldn't benefit from one. But we do hear from the Coens (who seem are on set and seem exhausted) in the longest featurette, a 25-minute "making of" piece that interviews them both, along with all of the lead actors, and many prominent crew members. This featurette is more enjoyable than most in the "making of" genre, packing a huge amount of interesting material in and covering many aspects of the film: adaptation, casting, costuming, set design, make-up, stunts, special effects and even a bit of character analysis. Plus, it's a real shock to the system to hear Kelly MacDonald interviewed with her heavy Scottish accent after listening to her very convincing Texas drawl for the whole film! "Working with the Coens" is an eight minute offering that is mostly a flattery piece about the sibling directors—but flattery they seem to deserve. Many actors and crew people from the film attest to the wonderful working environment they provide and give us a bit of insight on their smooth, cooperative style that makes it seem like they are "two heads on the same body." Finally, "Diary of a Country Sheriff" spends seven minutes getting a bit deeper into the region and time period of the book, explaining historical background about the increase in drug trafficking along the U.S.-Mexico border in the early 80s that informs the events of the book.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There is a strange contrast in No Country between the harsh, unrelenting realism of the action and the narrative events and the very writerly script. Even though the words are translated into local Texas dialect, it sometimes feels like every other spoken phrase is a makes-you-think one-liner. The script creates a world in which all citizens of West Texas seem to moonlight as armchair philosophers, doling out little homespun nuggets of truth 24/7. But perhaps the gravity of the themes here justifies this lapse in realism, as viewers will be eager for all the help they can get in sorting out the whys and hows of the terrible things happening on-screen.
The lowest-common-denominator marketing scheme for this complex work advertises on the back of the DVD box that viewers are in for a "sizzling and supercharged action-thriller" and promises that it "will take you to the edge of your seat and beyond—right up until its heart-stopping final moment." I'm not sure what final moment that writer saw, but my heart didn't quite stop when Sheriff Bell described a dream he had to his wife over their morning a cup of coffee. I bring this marketing up because it makes me appreciate the Coens all the more for not making this rich story into a "supercharged action-thriller" and for making the film good enough to succeed, even in a profit-driven environment that clearly doesn't know what to do with a mainstream movie this dark and contemplative.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
• The Making of No Country for Old Men
Review content copyright © 2008 Jennifer Malkowski; Site design and review layout copyright © 2013 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.