No Country for Old Men is one of the acknowledged classics of 21st Century cinema that took some time to burrow its way into my appreciation. It simply was not what I was suspecting. There were moments of expertly-staged grisly violence and it is ostensibly a classic cat-and-mouse tale, but for the most part it’s a deliberately-paced, almost meditative film. It also lacks that sense of off-kilter comedy that punctuated the carnage in Fargo. It’s only over the course of subsequent viewings during the decade since it was released that realisation dawned that I had completely missed the point.
First and foremost, No Country for Old Men is a character study of three men and their place in a region going through a period of transition. Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) is a world-weary Sheriff and World War II veteran. Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) is a Vietnam veteran who finds $2m amidst the aftermath of a drug hit and goes on the run, pursued by Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), a hitman hired to retrieve the money. The film is set in West Texas in 1980, a turning point in American political and economic history. Joel and Ethan Coen adapted Cormac McCarthy’s source novel with a level of faith rarely seen before or since, and they appear to be ideal interpreters of McCarthy’s sparse, brutalist poetics.
Along with veteran cinematographer Roger Deakins, the Coens evoke and subvert the style of the classic Western. The landscapes are the vast, craggy panoramas of hundreds of beloved oaters; but these aren’t the romanticised vistas signifying the freedom of the great outdoors. Being out in the open here will get you killed. Moss finds this out the hard way early in the film, and from there the action is squeezed and compressed into claustrophobic motel rooms, general stores and hospitals, shot with the same deliberation and care as the rangy exteriors.
The Coens show a great deal of dramatic restraint throughout; not just in the patience with which they paint their story, but in the decision to often focus on the aftermath of the act of violence, rather than the violence itself. This is indicative of filmmakers confident in their ability and in their interpretation of the source material. It allows for moments of jolting shock as someone we’ve seen alive and chatty by a motel pool is seen floating face down in it moments later. It also cleverly denies the viewer the visual catharsis that an explosion of carnage brings after a steady build up of tension. Yet, none of this would matter if the characters, and the actors playing them, weren’t up to scratch, so much does the film hinge upon them.
It could be argued, in one of the film’s few flaws, that the action is triggered by a somewhat foolish act, albeit one of kindness by Moss. It doesn’t ring true with his later actions, particularly as he’s shown to be a tough, tenacious and resourceful adversary for Chigurh. It proved to be a calling card for Brolin, perhaps still best known at that point for playing Sean Astin’s elder brother in The Goonies two decades earlier. He looks very much at home in his environment until it all goes South, and is believable both as a worthy foe for Chigurh and a flawed but loving husband.
Jones is very much a passive observer to the cataclysm around him, acting like a Greek chorus as the Coens import Ed’s chapter-opening narration and scatter them like verbal nuggets of wisdom through the film. His fall from love with West Texas has been gradual, and his view is more obviously due to a nostalgia for a better time; or at least, for a time he understood. As pointed out by this uncle, a veteran sheriff paralysed by a bullet decades earlier, ‘This has always been a violent place.’ Jones is great as a jaded sage – the same quality he brought to the criminally underseen The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada a few years prior to this. You get the sense he’s not exactly being stretched by his character, but his face is as leathery and authentic as the boots on his feet.
Of course, the film belongs most obviously to Bardem as the implacable, methodical Anton Chigurh. He’s psychopath, but not in any cartoonish way that imbalances the sense of realism of the film. He could have been ridiculous resembling as he does Preacher’s Saint of Killers with the hair of Shrek’s Lord Farquaad, but he’s so scary any laughter is instantly throttled in the throat. He’s sketched in the most beautifully visual way. There’s no extraneous movements or physical tics; he’s almost a killing machine apart from his curious fastidiousness. After he’s been injured by Moss and he’s seeing to his wounds the grimace on his face is as much distaste at the mess than pain. The impact of the classic movie monster is usually lessened the more screen time they are given. Not in this case. Bardem may as well have just carried his Oscar throughout the movie, it was so nailed on.
Chigurh also embodies most obviously the exploration of fate and free will that is one of the main thematic concerns of the film. Through Chigurh, McCarthy and the Coens seem to favour a fatalistic reading. The coin tosses he favours are a red herring. In the famous scene with the old store manager, the man was merely not destined to die that day. The element of chance doesn’t work as, beside the unease he felt at the weirdo in his shop, he was too simply too baffled to understand the consequences. Carla Jean (Kelly McDonald) on the other hand understands her fate all too well and refuses to call the toss. At the end of the film, Chigurh himself is the victim of fate in a random car accident. Ironically, he’s in the wrong place at the wrong time, as were so many of his victims.
No Country for Old Men is truly one of those films that get richer with every viewing and is right up there among the Coens’ finest work, which is a high bar indeed. It’s a wonderful amalgam of source and adaptation. If, as many of us hope, McCarthy’s Blood Meridian is finally adapted for the screen, the Coens would appear to be the logical choice. Their skill at depicting vivid, almost larger-than-life characters against a gritty, realistic environment is one of their great strengths. No Country is also a rare case of the Academy not being egregiously incorrect in their choices (although of course There Will Be Blood would also have been a justified winner). Poetic and astute, it’s a depiction of masculinity and how it copes against changing circumstances and environments, but without the nostalgic sense of elegy that tends to cloud the modern revisionist western.