No Country for Old Men (2007)
Dirs. Ethan & Joel Coen; Tommy Lee-Jones, Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin
[4 out of 4 stars]
No Country for Old Men (2007) is a dark and thrilling masterpiece of the Southwestern genre. It’s brilliantly constructed and performed, starting from the opening atmospheric shots of a stark, desolate Texas landscape of brown grass and tumbleweeds. The sun is just rising behind parched gray hills in the distance as Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (played by Tommy Lee-Jones in his characteristically calm, Southern tone) begins a voice-over. Times have changed, he says: “Some of the old-time sheriffs never even wore a gun.” Ed has recently had to send a teenage boy to the electric chair for a passionless murder. The violence described in his monologue contrasts the peaceful landscape. But at the same time that it’s oddly beautiful, the quiet lifelessness also foreshadows the violence which follows.
The desert landscape is also home to Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), a Vietnam veteran and welder, first shown hunting deer. He goes to investigate a missed shot and comes across the remains of a drug deal gone wrong, as well as a case containing two million dollars. When he takes the money, a chase begins. Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), a terrifying bounty hunter, is sent after Moss, tracking him across Texas to recover the stolen money. Chigurh is the sort of psychopath who never seems to need to run during a chase, the kind who, after breaking into your home, will sit on your couch and drink the milk from your fridge. And then leave it out.
Sheriff Bell investigates Chigurh, who leaves bodies everywhere he visits. But Chigurh is not the only one after Moss. Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson), a bounty hunter from the city, is also hired to track Moss, following him to a hospital just south of the border. Well’s introduction creates a link to the to the classic Southwestern film noir, Touch of Evil (1958), directed by Orson Welles. The landscape of Touch of Evil is not as unfriendly as in No Country for Old Men, but there is always the contrast of the border, not only between Mexico and the U.S., but also between order and wilderness. Wells, as a bounty hunter, acts as a liaison between past and present, city and country; he fits in with the modern, city life, but in the end, neither he nor Moss can live up to Chigurh’s savagery. Moss tries to hide from both, but if films from Psycho (1960) to Memento (2000) can teach us anything, it’s that nothing good ever happens in a motel.
Moss and Chigurh’s sprawling game of cat and mouse may take up most of the film, but I find Sheriff Bell’s role far more significant, because he adds the emotional dimension the film needs. He’s a tired man, wrinkles betraying the violence he has seen, worn down by the landscape and the job. As the Sheriff demonstrates in his opening monologue, it’s not the violence in No Country for Old Men which is terrifying, but the lack of emotion behind it. When we first meet Chigurh, escaping from a police station after strangling an officer to death without the slightest trace of pity, it’s the Sheriff’s voice-over which draws the contrast between the types of violence. “The crime you see now,” he says, “it’s hard to even take its measure. It’s not that I’m afraid of it. I always knew you had to be willing to die to even do this job.”
The most impactfully quiet scene occurs about twenty minutes from the end, when the Sheriff visits his uncle Ellis, a retired deputy. This is a simple scene, one easy to overlook. But it’s also the most important thematically. Throughout the film, the Sheriff talks about how times have changed. In the old days, he explains, people had better manners: people no longer say “sir” and “ma’am”. The theme and meaning of the film’s title, in the Sheriff’s eyes, would be that the country is no longer a place for those men who have now grown older. But the reclusive Ellis corrects him from a wheelchair: “What you got ain’t nothin’ new. This country’s hard on people.” Ellis’s statement follows the tropes of the Southwestern genre: the Texas landscape is not merely a backdrop for this violence, but a brutal, unchanging perpetrator of it. Even with the rise of cities like El Paso, the region still bears the scars of the frontier. Ed’s country hasn’t changed, he has.
One of the truly brilliant elements of the film is its soundtrack (or lack thereof). The film is almost entirely silent, save for a few ambient noises. This is remarkable, especially due to the film’s high level of suspense. Compare the scene where Chigurh finds Llewellyn in his room to a parallel scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954), when the murderer, Thorwald (Raymond Burr), finds Jefferies (James Stewart) in his apartment. Hitchcock utilises Bernard Herrmann’s scores to great effect, and much has been written on how music influences suspense. But the Coen brothers eliminate this aspect and are thus left with a much more difficult job. They have to rest the suspense entirely on the visual elements, and the result is breathtaking. As Chigurh approaches, the light under the door is the only clue, and we, like Moss, hold our breath, waiting for what will happen next. It doesn’t disappoint.
The film ends when the Sheriff recounts two dreams. Both deal with age and fear: he longs for the days when his father was there as a protective force (in the second dream, his father prepares a fire when they ride through a snowy countryside), and it becomes clear that, no matter how much Ed has seen, there’s still a desire for the security of someone wiser who can help. But the paradox, as he realises, is that he’s now the “older man”, and the brutal landscape provides no oases for the worn-down and broken.
No Country for Old Men, which beat one of my personal favorite films, There Will be Blood (2007), for Best Motion Picture, well deserves its four Oscars. If I have one complaint about the film, it’s a small one: I find the middle scenes a bit repetitive. Watching Moss hide a case full of money in motel vents is really only interesting the first time. But the suspense, and Bardem and Lee-Jones’ flawless acting, more than makes up for these drawn-out sequences. Visually haunting, the Coen brothers’ adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s story will no doubt be remembered as a classic: it’s a film to be studied as well as watched, provoking reflection with every scene.