I’d like to see No Country For Old Men be referred to as Fargo’s western cousin. From the novel by Cormac McCarthy, the Coens have revealed a lurid thriller that will undoubtedly leave the viewer with both chills and some food for thought long after it’s over.
The film is sprawled in 1980 over various parts of South Texas. Out hunting one day, Llweyln Moss comes across a drug deal gone horribly wrong. All involved are dead, their bodies becoming putrid under the sun. One of them has a satchel filled with money. Moss decides to take the money, thinking that all who know about it are dead and that no one will ever know he took it.
He soon finds out that he has made a hugemistake. Now he is being hunted by the owner of the money, Anton Chigurh ( Javier Bardem, 2004’s The Sea Inside), a crazy, obsessive-compulsive killer. The third-party observer trying to piece the puzzle together in all of this is Sheriff Ed Tom Bell ( Tommy Lee Jones).
There is very little if any music scored for the picture. A curious choice, but one that works. Usually films use a score to heighten a moment or uplift spirits, but the Coens, who also edited the picture set their film at a gradual, consistent pace and meticulously let tension, characters, and dialogue do all that is necessary.
The cinematography by Roger Deakins is amazing and captures the mood of a contemporary western. If Deakins fails to receive an Oscar nomination, then there is something extremely wrong.
You are not likely to find a trio of actors this year who hit their roles closer to home than that of Jones, Bardem and Brolin. It’s Bardem’s character that deserves discussion first. He creates the most remarkable and memorable villain since Sergi Lopez’s Captain Vidal in Pan’s Labyrinth.
Chigurh is not just enigmatic but inscrutable. He doesn’t understand people and actually looks down on any other being that has a trace of humanity in them. Making it quite easy for him to kill anyone he meets on a whim. He lets his compulsions dictate how he interacts with people.
Josh Brolin makes a turn as Llewelyn Moss. He is an immediately liked hero for the audience to cheer on. He and his wife, Carla Jean ( Kelly Macdonald, 2005’s Nanny McPhee), live in it is understandable for Moss to do what he does. He’s not stupid nor is he weak and he proves to be a worthy match in the cat-and-mouse game between himself and Chigurh.
Most importantly, he proves himself as a decent man. He loves his wife, although he doesn’t show it, but with what Chigurh threatens him with, we know it.
It is these hunter vs. prey scenes that are the most memorable in No Country For Old Men, especially the sequence set at a hotel. Shown from the perspective of Moss, the Coens let the tension slowly build until just the right moment, making viewers nearly jump out of their seats.
Chigurh’s position isn’t seen until the end of the sequence, which makes it even more suspenseful. It would be very interesting to see the Coens direct a horror film after showcasing their techniques here.
As Sheriff Bell, Tommy Lee Jones gives his best and most impressive performance. If Jones gets an Oscar nomination it will probably be for Best Actor but his role. But it is Jones’ character to whom the title is referring to.
Curiously, the title doesn’t have anything to do with the feud between Moss and Chigurh and isn’t explained until the last act, which primarily belongs to Jones. It is probably these last twenty minutes or so that have critics hailing the film as a masterpiece.
As with Fargo, you’ll find scenes in No Country For Old Men that may strike you as excisable at first but you’ll realize later just how important they were. Concluding a scene that leads into the film’s denouement, which is blessedly unconventional from most movies and lets the viewer have their own hindsight of the events that take place off-screen.
Most will be caught off guard by what develops in the final act. In the last scene, featuring a poignant Jones, warrants discussion. It doesn’t tie up any loose-ends nor is it very satisfiable, but the Coen’s approach here is bold and admirable.
Above all else it is more real than anything I have seen in a film from this genre because things don’t turn out the way Bell would have liked them to. It shows a man, after all he has been through and seen as a Sheriff, lost and confused about who he is supposed to be. Whether you’re for or against the ending, it will give you something to ruminate over after you leave the theater.