The Coen Brothers take a novel approach to No Country for Old Men. And I mean that literally—this film is the most novel-like movie I’ve seen in ages, and, well, author Cormac McCarthy (whose book the film was based on) certainly must be relieved with the result. As soon as I found myself gnawing my paw off in tension early on when a main character was being chased by a menacing dog… in slow motion while they were both swimming in a river (!), I gave myself over to the film—the weirdness, the spareness, the dustiness, and the menace of it all.
If you’ve ever seen a movie—or read the news, for that matter—you should know that if you come across a bloodbath in the remote desert, and a suitcase in the midst of it all that just so happens to contain $2 million dollars, well… you probably shouldn’t take the suitcase. But that is exactly what Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) does. He lives in a trailer park with his wife (Kelly Macdonald). They aren’t destitute or anything; they have a nice home and a stable marriage. But, heck, who wouldn’t want two million dollars? But Llewelyn makes a second mistake. He returns to the scene, feeling guilt that he didn’t have any agua for the lone survivor wedged and bloodied behind the wheel of a truck. Enter more men with guns, and thus begins Llewelyn’s race for his life.
No Country for Old Men takes place mainly in the dust of East Texas. So it is no surprise that the sheriff who is trying to catch up to Llewelyn to save him from himself is played by Tommy Lee Jones. Jones has the Texas drawl down pat. He wears the beige uniform comfortably like we’ve seen him do so in so many movies. But the difference with this character is that Sheriff Ed Tom Bell is tired. He is weary that there is so much evil in the world. He explains this often to his young deputy, who soaks up the wisdom earnestly, but hasn’t the world experience to really know what the sheriff is talking about. And what the sheriff is talking about is the man on Llewelyn’s tail.
There is much talk about Javier Bardem’s character in No Country. Is he the devil? Is he the epitome of evil? Is he just a really really bad man who wants to kill Llewelyn to get the money back? We eventually find out that his name is Anton Chigurh (and no, characters in the film can’t figure out how quite to pronounce it either). We meet Chigurh very early in the film, carrying a cattle air gun, which looks like a portable oxygen tank with a hose attached. Of course people are confused when he approaches them with this contraption (who wouldn’t be?) so they are as surprised as us when Chigurh places the tip of the hose against someone’s forehead, and BAM!
Chigurh is after Llewelyn. Sheriff Bell is of course after Chigurh AND Llewelyn, but the sheriff’s real purpose is to protect the every-man from the killer. It is just a matter of who can get to the poor guy first.
No Country is gorgeously photographed, with the wide-open spaces of the desert spanning the screen. You can practically feel the dry wind blow and the grit get into your teeth. You want to wearily wipe your brow, not only from the heat, but because of the relentless and brilliantly choreographed tension in the film. There are moments where I believe that the entire audience was holding their collective breath along with the character on screen. Moments that are so quiet that you strain to hear sounds, to look around corners—and you suddenly notice that there is no soundtrack for these scenes, and that it really is as painfully quiet as you’ve played it up in your head.
When the credits rolled, I did hear some cranky complaints from a few. There are more questions than answers at the end. These days, spoon-fed audiences expect things to wrap up cleanly with a big bow on top. If you expect that, you may be disappointed. But if you know how to savor a good book, I’m sure you’ll be able to appreciate the boldness of what the Coens (and McCarthy) pull off in their story. It ain’t clean and tidy, but it ain’t a clean and tidy story to begin with. Simply put, I thought No Country for Old Men was fantastic movie-making.
This film was rushed to DVD so fast that they didn’t even get to acknowledge its Oscars for Best Picture, Director(s), Adapted Screenplay, and Supporting Actor! The three featurettes on the disc are pretty standard, adding up to around 45 minutes of tidbits, with all major participants present, from the Coens, to Bardem, Brolin, and Jones, to several of the crew—many of whom have worked with the Coens for “6, 7, or 10 of their films”. Interesting facts include: Tommy Lee Jones is actually from the same remote county in Texas where the character of Llewelyn Moss is from; the three major characters never are on the screen together, so really didn’t get to work with each other; and when Javier Bardem’s agent asked what directors he would most like to work with, he said the Coen Brothers—but figured that he’d never have a chance since they make uniquely American films, and he’s a Spanish actor. In their interviews, the Coens are surprisingly chatty (even erupting into prolonged giggles at one point)—and indeed finish each other’s sentences. So it is unsurprising that more than one of the interviewed actors refer to the Coens as the “two-headed director”.