No Country for Old Men is the Coen Brothers’ most celebrated film. It won the brothers three Academy Awards: best picture, director, and adapted screenplay. Javier Bardem picked up the Oscar for supporting actor. Although individual Coen films had received great critical acclaim, No Country seemed to mark what many critics saw as a new maturity in their work. Coming after a pair of uneven broad comedies, The Ladykillers and Intolerable Cruelty, the stark, stripped down, formally-controlled aesthetic of No Country, appeared to be a departure even from films like Fargo, Miller’s Crossing, Blood Simple, and The Man Who Wasn’t There, which were similarly grim and violent, but still contained their signature moments of absurd humor, references to older movies, and self-conscious pastiche of classic Hollywood genres. But looking more closely at the film, and in light of the movies that the Coens have made since, No Country fits very comfortably into the Brothers’ filmographic style, subject matter and theme.

For all of the references in their films, No Country and True Grit are the Coens’ only adaptations of novels.1 Indeed, one of the most underappreciated aspects of their work is its literary quality. Their adaptations of film noir are based as much upon the hard-boiled fiction and crackling dialogue of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler as the classic noir films. So it is no surprise that their film of No Country mirrors author Cormac McCarthy’s spare prose style. The film is very quiet; the snappy Coen dialogue is notably absent.  Roger Deakins shoots the dusty West Texas landscape so that is reduced down to bands of color – beige, blue, yellow – a moving Rothko canvas.

No Country stars Josh Brolin as Llewelyn Moss, a welder who stumbles upon a group of vehicles filled with and surrounded by the corpses of Mexican narco-traffickers and their dogs while out hunting deer. Along with a pickup truck full of heroin, Moss finds a bag filled with two million dollars. Immediately deciding to keep this life-changing stash. He tells his skeptical young wife, Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald), to leave town and stay with her mother as he goes out on the lam to elude those to whom the money belongs. Moss is pursued by many more people than he imagines. Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) from his county, a group of Mexican gangsters from the cartel, a bounty hunter (Woody Harrelson), and most memorably the killer Anton Chigurh (Bardem) – a kind or angel of death – are all after Moss and the money. The plot is really just a series of near captures and desperate escapes along the Mexican border, played out among Moss and his pursuers. The action juiced by the signature tension and suspense for which the Coens’ crime films are known. The difference in this film is the tone and thematic emphasis.

The universe of No Country is the familiar malevolent, amoral world of neo-noir. Moss, like many Coen heroes before him, is compelled by greed and ego, but he is incapable of estimating the odds against him. In Blood Simple and Fargo, the Coens set their noir films outside of the usual urban environment. In No Country they do this again, but also more seriously take on the themes of the Western – civilization vs. the wild, the rule of the gun vs. rule of law, the morality of violence, and American individualism.

Moss only chances upon the money because he wounded a deer with a narrowly missed shot and he walks down from his high vantage point to put it out of its misery. This act of hunter’s compassion sets his fate in motion. Out of the same instinct, after having taken the money, Moss returns to the crime scene with water to aid a gravely wounded man, nearly losing his life in the process. Jones in his gravelly Texas twang performs voice-over narrations that are Sheriff Bell’s reminiscences of the early days of Texas and of the battles between lawmen and outlaws. The crime with which he is confronted is savage beyond his understanding. The values that shape Bell and Moss seem to no longer apply.

Chigurh, played with icy, crazed intensity (and a famously bizarre haircut) by Bardem embodies the new west.  He murders without remorse and hunts Moss relentlessly.  He kills with an airgun, used to slaughter cattle. Industrial meat production has superseded the cowboy and the ranch. In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, Chigurh asks a man to call a coin toss, after a few moments of conversation it becomes clear that choosing heads or tails will decide the man’s life. Chigurh sees death as inevitable and that every choice and every action unfailingly leads to it. He is simply carrying out the dictates of fate, not responsible for his actions, but acting as death’s instrument. There is no room for compassion or honor in this new western landscape; there is just the hunter and the prey. As it is remarked upon several times not even dogs can escape the violence of men. Only Carla Jean, in a scene which differs significantly from the novel and is perhaps the warmest and most humane moment in the film, is able to defy Chigurh’s worldview.

The Coens perfectly capture the essence of McCarthy’s brutal vision of existence. In writing this neo-Western, McCarthy is giving the lie to the sentimental view of the west that the classic Western purveys, eliding the violence and racism involved in the destruction of native people, westward expansion, and the ideology of Manifest Destiny. The Coens bring the book to life with some of their best filmmaking—exquisitely devised sequences, an uncanny eye for the quirks of human behavior and ability to cast just the right actors. The brothers also manage to include small moments of humor, whether it is the constant complaining of Carla Jean’s mother, Chigurh’s coiffure and manner, or Bell’s conversation with another archly conservative Sheriff. In many other Coen Brother’s films, they sometimes seem to view their rural characters and settings from a somewhat superior distance, like incredulous anthropologists. In No Country, however, one feels a palpable sense of desolation and loss, as Moss’s and Bell’s illusions of morality are taken from them. A resonant and powerful film, it stays with you long after the final frame.

 

No Country for Old Men (2007 USA 122 mins)

Prod Co: Paramount Vantage/Miramax/Scott Rudin Productions/Mike Zoss Productions Prod: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen, Scott Rudin Dir: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen  Scr: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen, based on the book by Cormac McCarthy Phot: Roger Deakins Ed: Roderick Jaynes (Joel Coen & Ethan Coen) Prod Des: Jess Gonchor Mus: Carter Burwell

Cast: Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin, Woody Harrelson, Kelly Macdonald, Tess Harper

 

Endnotes

  1. They credit the Charles Portis’s novel of True Grit, rather than the 1969 Henry Hathaway film. The Ladykillers is, of course, a remake of Alexander Mackendrick’s 1955 classic. O Brother Where Art Thou (2007) is a loose adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey.