“Whatcha got ain’t nothin new. This country’s hard on people, you can’t stop what’s coming, it ain’t all waiting on you. That’s vanity.”
“And you know what’s going to happen now. You should admit your situation. There would be more dignity in it…Let me ask you something. If the rule you followed brought you to this, of what use was the rule?”
“He just rode on past… and he had his blanket wrapped around him and his head down and when he rode past I seen he was carryin’ fire in a horn the way people used to do and I could see the horn from the light inside of it. ‘Bout the color of the moon. And in the dream I knew that he was goin’ on ahead and he was fixin’ to make a fire somewhere out there in all that dark and all that cold, and I knew that whenever I got there he would be there. And then I woke up…”
In the winter of 2007, I first viewed “No Country for Old Men” with a friend in a Spokane theater. After the somewhat abrupt ending, my friend turned to me and said, “well, the Coen’s have laid another turd.” I could not disagree more.
Coming off their lowest moment in “The Ladykillers”, the Coen Bros arguably succeeded even their highest peak in “Fargo”. “No Country for Old Men” is a masterful thriller that finds the Coens returning to Texas (“Blood Simple” was set there) in 1980. The barren landscape, expertly photographed by Roger Deakins (a frequent contributor), is beautiful but also emotes a sense of loneliness and alienation. The feel of the movie, as conceived by the Coens and Deakins and musician Carter Burwell who did the scoring, add up to a haunting meditation.
As the movie opens, a sheriff’s deputy is bringing in a strange man dressed in black with a freakish haircut. The man, Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem in one of the greatest portrayals of villainy in movie history) slowly loosens his bindings at the police station and casually strolls over to the deputy seated at a desk with his back turned. Since the deputy is talking on the phone, he doesn’t expect to be strangled to death by Chigurh’s handcuffs but that is his fate. The strangulation scene is vicious, long and drawn out perhaps with a singular purpose. The Coens, of course, are known for their screwball comedies. Here from the outset, they are morbidly serious.
We meet other characters. An old, noble lawman (Ed Tom Bell played by Tommy Lee Jones) who provides some narration and Llewyn Moss (a solid performance from Josh Brolin). While Moss is out hunting in the desert, he comes across the aftermath of a drug related shootout. Bodies are strewn everywhere. Blood spatters on the ground and vehicles. A dog was even shot multiple times. In the back of one of the pickup trucks, Moss finds a mass quantity of packaged drugs. The only thing that is missing is the money which Moss eventually finds. Two million dollars. A massive amount of cash for a guy who lives in a mobile home with his wife, Carla Jean (played by Kelly MacDonald). Moss decides to take the money a fateful decision that will put him in the crosshairs of Chigurh and other drug lords trying to find their missing cash.
Based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy with the screenplay written by the Coen’s, “No Country for Old Men” becomes a thought-provoking thriller that delves into the depths of human nature, the moral choices we make plus their consequences and the unstoppable nature of fate. There are moments of monumental suspense through old motels, along sparsely populated roads and along the Texas/ Mexico border. These moments provide a genuine anxiety to the audience as we wait for what will come next but the real terror of this movie is what the film has to say thematically about our lives, our choices or lack thereof.
Bell, as a police officer, has the noblest of intentions to stop a seemingly unquenchable evil but he is old, tired and slow. Sequences of scenes toward the beginning of the film have Bell arriving at the scene of the drug shootout and also at Moss’s trailer after Chigurh has already been there. Obviously this is intentional. The police man is perpetually lagging behind the force of evil. Will the lawman be able to enact justice or even come close?
Moss is a character who may as well be us. A man who grew up hearing about the American dream, got married and lives in a trailer with his wife looking for a way to better his life. Two million dollars would definitely be his ticket to increased material gains and a more comfortable living style. However, what is the cost of taking this money? Moss is clearly the protagonist whom the audience is rooting to get away but as we move toward the end, is he still the protagonist after the consequential decisions that he makes? His climatic choice provide reverberations that are beyond his well-being.
The Coen’s turn the entire genre of thriller on its head much as they redefined it with “Fargo”. “No Country for Old Men” takes unpredictable turns and Joel and Ethan Coen’s love for irony is far outside comedy in their McCarthy adaptation. The irony turns on the observation that the villain, Chigurh, is far more principled and a convincing keeper of promises then our protagonist, Moss.
Chigurh can be interpreted as the force of fate (until “fate” visits him toward the end) and a good Calvinist would see this as predestination but even a worldview that is absent of God can believe that our choices, if they exist at all, are narrowly limited. A flip of a coin determines the fate of a gas station attendant who meets Chigurh and the attendant has no say in the matter other than calling “heads” or “tails”. When we are not met with forces outside our control, we are perhaps further confined, like Moss, by our so-called ethical choices especially the ones we will not make atonement for.
Ellis tells Sheriff Bell, “you can’t stop what’s coming” and if the sheriff thinks he can that his mindset is “vanity”. The sheriff will not stop reckonings that need to happen and he cannot stop the cruel landlord of this world: death.
Another crucial conversation takes place between Chigurh and Carson Wells (played by Woody Harrelson). As Chigurh points his homemade gun at Wells, both men know that Wells will die. Chigurh says,” Let me ask you something. If the rule you followed brought you to this, of what use was the rule?” What rule is Chigurh referencing? Perhaps Wells’ life philosophy or religion. Regardless of what Wells’ believes about anything, he is going to die a violent death. What was the point of those beliefs?
Those scenes and others speak to the haunting nature of “No Country for Old Men”. It is one of the best films of the 21st century and one of the greatest thrillers ever made. Relentlessly thrilling but also a rather introspective, dark meditation on our existence. McCarthy and the Coen’s are certainly tipping the scales here toward nihilism. There is not any hope or foundation for the characters to hold on too.
Lester Lauding Level: 5 (out of 5)
Ranking of Coen Bros Movie (so far):
No Country for Old Men
Fargo (review here)
O Brother, Where Art Thou? (review here)
The Big Lebowski (review here)
Miller’s Crossing (review here)
The Hudsucker Proxy (review here)
Raising Arizona (review here)
The Man Who Wasn’t There (review here)
Blood Simple (review here)
Barton Fink (review here)
Intolerable Cruelty (review here)
The Ladykillers (review here)