No Country for Old Men
When you see No Country for Old Men, leave your preconceptions at home.
But bring your Alfred Hitchcock lenses. They’re useful.
The viewer of No Country for Old Men has to fight
through a potentially disconcerting ending, two pivotal
violent scenes that aren’t shown and a grab-bag of
Ordinary viewing won’t suffice. One needs extraordinary awareness to navigate the pitfalls and cul de sacs that the Coen Brothers have imposed on their material.
No Country for Old Men is a dazzling time-bomb of a
movie. It is an engrossing, brutal, nerve-wracking
moral tale. Like several other recent films, it’s one-of-a-kind, but draws on potent resources.
And, it stays with you like a beautiful bruise well
after you’ve left the theater. The Coen Brothers —
Joel and Ethan — are back at the top of their game.
No Country for Old Men, adapted by the Coens, from
a novel by Cormac McCarthy, is set in West Texas in
1980. Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) out hunting, comes
across the remains of a drug deal gone awry in the
open countryside, with bodies all over the place.
He discovers a case full of $2 million in cash and
absconds with it. He is pursed by two men. One is an
aging lawman, Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones). The other
is Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), a vicious psychotic
who kills almost all of the people he encounters.
As Llewelyn and Anton embark on a violent battle of
wits, Ed Tom follows, surveying the damage in their
wake. It takes its toll on him.
The cast is engaging and provocative. Josh Brolin
portrays the resourceful man on the run. We root for
him as the relentless, soulless killer pursues him.
Javier Bardem gives a chilling performance as Anton
Chigurh with his hypnotic, deadfish eyes and shuffling
gait. Anton Chigurh is the most compelling villain
since Hannibal Lector.
Tommy Lee Jones continues his streak of great,
human characterizations as the lawman who is trying to
hold his life together as the modern world careens out
Sheriff Bell blurts out, “I’m overmatched.” He
finds himself trapped in a world of drugs and
violence, where basic civility is dead. The wild west is now mad. It is no place for old cowboys.
Scottish actress Kelly McDonald, who was wonderful
as the title character in the HBO movie The Girl in
the Cafe, is appealing as Llewelyn’s vulnerable wife,
who finds out that logic is irrelevant.
The rest of the cast is studded with effective
performances, especially Gene Jones as the owner of an
isolated gas station. Jones has a fateful meeting with
In No Country for Old Men, the Coen Brothers have
returned to the universe of Fargo (1996) — funny,
stark, where the land and environment are powerful
characters. It’s a world of accidental meetings that turn
deadly. Life is decided by a flip of a coin. People
have warped sensibilities.
The quirkiness of the Coens is kept in perspective
in No Country for Old Men by the spacious west. It
didn’t work in The Ladykillers (2004) and Intolerable
Cruelty (2003), where it was leaden. Now it’s back in
the wide open spaces.
The Coens’s masterly cinematographer Roger Deakins
captures a world that is both bleak and earthy.
Deakins should win the Oscar. He also shot The
Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
and The Valley of Elah, both released this year.
Most of No Country for Old Men is fraught with
haphazard violence and tension. Some of the
suspenseful sequences are excruciating. The master
Hitchcock would be proud.
No Country for Old Men builds to a potential tornado, then turns into a tumbleweed. The abrupt ending initially is very unsatisfying. But the Coens want it that way. Film and life don’t work out the way we want them to. The Coens want us to think about it.
I very much admire Alfred Hitchcock, who was able to get audiences to participate, and then he would manipulate them, mislead them, fool them.
No Country for Old Men is like the Coens taking Hitch out into the west. Their film is full of Hitchcockian touches and themes. Major scenes occur in a motel reminiscent of the Bates Motel. There are scenes in a hotel on the stairs and in a room that whisper Hitch. A character looks on the soles of his shoes for traces of blood. Llewelyn Moss — shades of Marion Crane. Is the money a red herring? Birds seem symbolic in both movies.
The ending of No Country for Old Men may remind one
of the end of Psycho, where after the frenzy of
violence, we had a sheriff ruminating. That originally
was disconcerting to audiences in 1960. Calm after the
storm. We want the storm.
No Country for Old Men withholds the rain. But there is plenty of disturbing thunder and dangerous lightning.