No Country For Old Men is one of those films that gets better every time I watch it. I’ve held a long standing relationship with The Coen Brothers, and whenever I sit down to watch their interpretation of this Cormac McCarthy novel, I find myself wishing they’d take more of their films seriously. No Country For Old Men stands out amongst their canon as their most dramatic film. Little to no humor to be found in this movie, excepting a couple of memorable scenes including socks, tent poles and hotel rooms.
The predominant character in this film is the Texas landscape itself, wide and barren and brown. The film opens with the Sheriff thinking back on the history of Texas law, gazing out over the cold morning and the scuds of brush that mottle the earth. Texas roils beneath the struggle, the sky black as pitch and split by blue lightning. As an avid lover of Cormac McCarthy’s books, I think No Country For Old Men is the very best interpretation of his brutal prose.
Texas is not so much a land shown in this film as it is a land recalled – we see it with its whistling winds and dusty boots and old men left behind by the progress of civilization. “I’m not on the radio,” the Sheriff says sadly, looking out from under the brim of his hat. He’s not on the radio, he’s uncomfortable with a gun and understands horses better than men. He’s numbed by the violence he sees in the world, powerless against it, swept along with it like a leaf on a river.
Part cat and mouse game, part old school Western, part character drama, No Country for Old Men is one of my favorite films. The acting is always spot on – indeed, Javier Bardem’s turn as the enigmatic and terrifying Chigurh is one of the best things I’ve ever seen on celluloid. He is a man out of place in any generation, his boots themselves look sharp enough to be weapons. “I guess I’d say he doesn’t have a sense of humor,” Carson Wells, played by Woody Harrelson, says.
The A-Listers put out great work here, my personal favorite performance coming from Tommy Lee Jones, but the side characters are equally startling. His observations, dry commentary and reassuring – albeit tired – presence in the film. He is the heart of the film. “What is Torbet says about truth and justice?” the Sheriff asks. We dedicate ourselves daily anew. “I’m gonna commence dedicating myself twice daily,” the Sherriff concludes. “Might come to three times before it’s all over.
Llewelyn Moss – played by Josh Brolin – is a hero I can root for. He’s a tough as nails, book dumb but street smart Vietnam Army veteran who makes a living by welding and picking up satchels stuffed with two million dollars. He has a beautiful wife who adores him, keeps his meat under his trailer and tosses the caps to his beers onto the table after he pops them. He can hold his own against a world class assassin as deadly as the Bubonic Plague, and keeps spent rounds from his rifle in his breast pocket. I figure he was probably a sniper in the war.
For a film so tense, little happens. Some people live, most die, and in the end no one ends up where you expect them to. Ed Tom Bell ends up his journey out in a shack with a man named Ellis and Ellis’ many cats, wondering about the nature of God and hearing stories about the death of his uncle. The final scenes of the film are haunting, beautiful, dark and enigmatic, much like the film that preceded them. This is the Coen Brother’s very best film, and it’s a movie I could watch over and over. “Lookin’ for what’s comin,” Llewelyn says at one point, answering a woman who asks him what he keeps looking out the window for. “Yeah, but nobody ever sees that,” the woman replies. Too right she is. It’s a movie full of people who are right, all in pursuit of something wrong. The result is something very, very special.
“What you’ve got ain’t nothin’ new. This country’s hard on people,” Ellis says. “Can’t stop what’s coming. It ain’t all waitin’ on you. That’s vanity.” Maybe he’s right. He seems like a man who’s right about most things, he and his outlaw cats. He lives on the outskirts of the world in the film, a world with old men and young men, lightning over hills and assassins that travel like coins. It’s a world as familiar to us as yesterday, yet already receding into memory. And that’s the truth in this film, I think. That this West, too, will soon be gone. And so will we.
The Good: The world class acting by all parties involved.
The Better: The Texas landscape used like a character to great effect.
The Best: Seeing how it all comes together into a great – albeit strange – Western.