Saturday, January 12, 2008

No Country for Old Men

If you haven't yet seen it, I have to warn you. No Country for Old Men is not quite like any movie you've ever seen. I can even go a step further and say that it will probably be unlike any movie you're likely to see in the future. Directed by the Coen Brothers and based on the book by Cormac McCarthy, its plot is very much that of a crime drama. It starts simply enough with Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin) stumbling upon the bloody results of a drug deal gone awry. This sets into motion a series of events in which the body count mounts quite steadily. Despite this, No Country for Old Men seems to owe more to the ethos of the Western than that of film noir. It isn't simply that the viewer is treated to scenes of the dry, rugged, southwestern Texas landscape, nor is it the fact that many of the characters wear cowboy hats and cowboy boots. Instead, it is that many of the characters could have come straight from a Western. Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) is the weary lawman, bemoaning the state of the world and waiting for his retirement. Llewellyn Moss is the no account loafer, trying to get by with doing as little honest work as possible. Even homicidal psychopath Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) lives by his own code, twisted though it may be. No Country for Old Men isn't so much a crime drama as it is a Western in the clothing of a crime drama.

This is perhaps fitting, as No Country for Old Men is very much in the mould of such films as The Wild Bunch and Tom Horn. Just as those films dealt with the dying of the Old West, so too does No Country for Old Men deal with a period of transition (the film is set in 1980). Ed Tom Bell is all too aware he is living in changing times, and he doesn't think those times are changing for the better. He reads an absolutely horrifying story in the newspaper, taking it as a sign things are getting worse. He and the sheriff from El Paso (Rodger Boyce) discuss how Texas has changed. Ed Tom Bell observes, "It starts when you begin to overlook bad manners. Anytime you quit hearin' 'sir' and 'ma'am' the end is pretty much in sight." No Country for Old Man is as much a tale of the changing West as any Western before it.

The theme of changing times mirrors another dominant theme in the film, that of the conflict between chance, free will, and fate. As in many of the Coen Brothers' films, most of the characters are simultaneously captains of their fate and victims of their own circumstances. It is often the case in the film that a character makes a decision, only to have circumstances intervene so that he is led in a completely different direction than he had decided upon. And often times it is unclear whether an individual's choice is truly his choice, or simply the whims of fate. Ultimately, in the world of No Country for Old Men, we are not so much dust in the wind as we are fish fighting against an increasingly stronger tide.

These themes are not simply examined through the words and actions of the characters. They are reinforced through the direction and editing of the Coen Brothers and the photography of Roger Deakins. Even the film's soundtrack, or relative lack of one, fits in perfectly with the film's themes. I may be wrong, but it seems to me that the majority of the film features no music whatsoever. And when it does, Carter Burwell's scoring is wonderfully subdued. No Country for Old Men is one of those few films where everything works well together, with nothing out of place.

Indeed, the movie features some of the best performances of any film released in 2007. Tommy Lee Jones is perfect as Sheriff Ed Tom Bell. Bell is a character often given to uttering bits of wisdom and personal philosophy, and yet he does so without ever seeming overly pithy or pretentious. Josh Brolin also does well as Llewellyn Moss, a none too bright man caught in circumstances of his own making, yet very much beyond his control. Ultimately, however, the best performance belongs to Javiar Bardem. Bardem's Chigurh rarely speaks, but the very way he moves would be enough to frighten anyone. What makes Chigurh even more frightening is that Bardem's performance is wonderfully understated; Chigurh is no hysterical madman by any means.

Ultimately, I cannot say that this is the Coen Brothers' masterpiece. They have made so many great films that stating such would not be an easy thing to do. That having been said, it certainly numbers among their best. This is a film which takes for granted that its viewers have some intelligence. More importantly, this is a film in which everything works together to reinforce its central themes. Part Western, part crime drama, it's a combination that for No Country for Old Men works very well.


Bobby D. said...

Sounds good--I will have to check it out/

here's a link you will enjoy (turn up the sound, sit back and relax)

Terence Towles Canote said...

Damn. It's a Small World is creepier than I ever thought it would be...

Jim Marquis said...

I'm a huge Coen brothers fan but for some reason NCFOM just didn't excite me all that much. I was put off by the way it ended...of course, that's probably not a fair
criticism if that's the way the book ended too. Maybe I'm just getting too old to appreciate despair.

Terence Towles Canote said...

I have to admit that I didn't mind the ending to NCFOM. I have no idea if it was the ending to the book, although it could be. I understand it was a fairly faithful adaptation.

Jim Marquis said...

If you think this was dark you should read The Road.

Snave said...

I am looking forward to seeing NCFOM, but I am not sure it will make it to the theater in our small town. I'll see it eventually, because I am a big fan of Coen films (I'm not sure I will ever see one of their I like better than The Big Lebowski, though!)

Excellent review, very thoughtful! I will consider what you have said when I finally get to see the film.