Insert Requisite Spoiler Alert Here
Everything you need to know about what will be remembered as Joel and Ethan Coen’s masterpiece can be gleaned from the two sequences that open the film; The wide open spaces of the West Texas desert, empty yet forbiddingly beautiful, are seen in near-silence, until a familiar voice (Tommy Lee Jones) intrudes on the solitude and begins to talk about what is inherited in places like this. Here, we learn, things get passed along from one generation to the next without as much as a perfunctory question; A man follows in his father’s footsteps and does what comes naturally to him. Fate is something one experiences as intimately as anything else in his life, and as you look at the barren landscape, the desolate roads, you learn that here, even here among nothing, things change. There was a time, a while back you learn, when some lawmen in places like this didn’t even bother wearing a gun, when the police were able to solve problems without need of a peacemaker. Times change, people change. Something new is on the way, even here among what seems to be nothing, and your fate is going to be to know it intimately. And suddenly, there he is; A shadowy looking man is pulled over by a police officer, both men seemingly insignificant in all of this nothingness. The man is taken to the station and, while the officer makes a phone call, slips his cuffs over his feet and strangles the deputy. Blood is everywhere as, wild-eyed with something that looks like pleasure, the prisoner extinguishes the life of the lawman. It is here, now. Change has come, even here. Something as old as nature, as inevitable as death itself.
There are few films that I have ever seen that create as perfect a blend of thematic unity, visual mastery and narrative eloquence as No Country For Old Men. Each scene is like a lesson in cinematic tension without ever feeling remotely didactic; There are no morals here, no judgments about politics or the state of the world. No Country For Old Men is the story of a man named Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), a Viet Nam veteran living on the fringes of society with his wife Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald) in the summer of 1980 when, hunting in the desert, he spies a pit bull limping away from what turns out to be a bloody mess of a crime scene; A drug deal gone bad, and everyone dead or on death’s door. The lone survivor asks for some water, but Llewelyn doesn’t have any. Instead, he goes in search of the money and, finding it, takes the two million dollars along with him. Late in the night, something human inside of him decides to return to the crime scene with a gallon of water. Maybe the man is alive. When his wife asks what he is up to, he tells her he’s about to do something dumber than hell. He’s right. When he opens the satchel of money, Pandora-like, he unleashes horror into the world.
If anything, No Country For Old Men is a film about characters locked in a battle with their own natures, with destiny seemingly a force pulsating inside of every frame, which is the essence of all great storytelling and classical drama. While all credit is due Cormac McCarthy’s novel (to which the Coens profess a deep loyalty and which I have admittedly not yet read), there is no mistaking the way in which the language of the cinematic thriller has been perfectly, poetically summarized and then transcended. There is nothing hurried or frantic about anything in the film, and while the explosions of violence send the heart racing, it beats faster because of the deliberate pace, the perfect predetermination of the dramatic conflict; This is how it must go. It feels like the slow clicking of the car as it ascends the first giant hill of a rollercoaster; You know what’s coming on the other side, and you dread it while at the same time hoping for the relief it will bring. Even when the film surprises, twisting and turning, every conclusion makes as much sense as the sweat-inducing build-up. Not surprisingly, one of the most powerful weapons in the Coen’s arsenal in this film is sound; The decision to not use music (despite a composing credit for the great Carter Burwell, whose music graces the closing credits) is a powerful choice that eliminates the emotional cues or ironic dissonances of a musical score and instead gives way to both contemplation and the physicality of the film’s world. And so, with room to breathe, the film’s sound design becomes a gateway to almost all of its dramatic tensions and dénouements. The sound of a door closing, an unanswered telephone ringing on the receiver and in the distance, footsteps approaching from the other side of a closed door, the single beep of an electronic device, the silence after an explosion of violence, an approaching siren; Each sound in the film is a part of the chase, every moment filled with the anticipation of the ultimate confrontation between a bad decision and the retribution that follows.
Oh, Death: Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) in Joel and Ethan Coen’s No Country For Old Men
Which is why, haircut be damned, the remorseless, merciless killer Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) is so absolutely frightening; Like death itself, Anton operates without discrimination, without the guidance of reason and with the force of inevitability. The equation is hauntingly simple. In order to illustrate the point with clarity, Anton offers one of his potential victims mercy with the flip of a coin; In Anton’s universe, one which we inevitably share, life boils down to chance, to making life and death choices regardless of whether we’re ready to stare death in the face or not. Anton being a force of nature, our own sympathies immediately align with the tragically flawed Llewelyn, whose own mistaken pride and confidence mark him as a human being, someone we can comprehend if only long enough to curse him for fucking up again. And smack in the middle of this chase between a thief and the man who is going to bring what is coming to him, we have Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), the symbol of justice, of law and order, whose own desire to avoid risk despite his interest in Llewelyn’s fate places him as the narrative fulcrum that perfectly balances the film’s concerns. In the final third of the film, once some more nasty business is unexpectedly resolved, the film naturally shifts focus to Bell and his own search for answers, none of which solve the crimes but all of which impact Bell’s understanding of the changing world around him.
Anton, on the other hand, doesn’t like unresolved questions; He is not a character who can leave without getting satisfaction, without delivering on his promises. And so, when he is denied narrative closure of his own, he takes matters into his own hands and pays dearly (if not wholly). As such, the film allows justice to be served in a unique way that doesn’t satisfy narrative convention but instead summarizes the film’s classical presentation of human nature; Things move along, they shift, they change and people act according to their own nature, seemingly without a choice, as if every decision was excruciatingly unavoidable. As such, some fall into death’s cold embrace while others pass close enough to death’s door to know when it’s time to stop asking questions and to get on with living. Either way, death endures, hand in hand with life. No Country For Old Men is a masterpiece, as fine (and as bloody) a story as you’d find in Shakespeare or Sophocles, sharing the classical concerns of those great dramas in the context of our own violent times. Without question, one of the finest, most authoritative pieces of filmmaking and storytelling I have seen in a long, long time.