THE 100 GREATEST FILMS OF ALL TIME – 24: NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN

by Daniel Suddes

No Country for Old Men (2007)  Directed by: Ethan & Joel Coen.  Screenplay by: Ethan & Joel Coen. Based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy.  Starring: Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, Tommy Lee Jones, Woody Harrelson. Oscar Count: 4 (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor).

Only a true American eccentric could have crafted something like No Country for Old Men. But this property had two of them to bring it to life. The first was the reclusive Cormac McCarthy, who acts as the modern Hemingway in creating his sparse, hopeless style of narration. The second was the Coen Brothers, who have long been known for taking pure Americana genres (including the film noir, the screwball comedy, and the western with this film) and inverting them to the point that they were almost unrecognizable. Still, those artists do have very different styles and approaches to material. The film is not like anything else the Coen’s have ever done. But it still manages to work, and becomes not only their best film, but the best modern western yet.

The plot involves what could have been a simple thriller. A blue collar welder finds a satchel full on money from a drug deal that has gone terribly wrong. Another man is seeking to recover the money, and does not seem to care who he has to hurt or kill to get it. There are several ancillary characters who are mostly there to provide some dark comedic relief. But the ultimate idea involves those two characters and their relationship with each other.

The overall story could have been summarized in the form of a B-grade thriller. But as it goes on, the film becomes an examination of the human condition. Lead characters Llewlyn Moss and Anton Chigurh seem, as the film progresses, more like events or ideas than like people. In a lesser film, this would be a death sentence. But the Coens use their characters for the same purposes as someone like Bergman used his.  Their strength is not in their own humanity. Their strength is in how they reflect our humanity.

These characters are meant to reflect on our own changing culture, something that McCarthy seemed unable or unwilling to accept. All of the characters in the film, with the exception of Tommy Lee Jones’ sheriff, seem like they are imitating images that they have seen on TV. In some ways, their actions contain a sort of self-contained logic. In a post-Vietnam world that showed seemingly normal people doing unspeakable things, why WOULDN’T the natural reaction of someone who comes across a massacre be to look for money? For that matter, why should it seem odd for the devices that slaughter houses use to kill animal be used to kill us?

Chigurh seems to be the only one in the film who is capable of realizing this, which is why he has become so popular. There are many indications in his performance; much as there was suggested in Anthony Hopkin’s performance in The Silence of the Lambs, that Chirgurh’s apparent insanity is caused by the realization of exactly what role he fulfills. Very few characters who encounter him survive – even the ones who are seemingly “good.”  Chigurh possesses an almost otherworldly knowledge of analyzing people and seeing why they deserve their fate. Of course, psychopaths have never been so philosophical in real life. But it does not diminish Chigurh’s character.

Why does this film resonate so much with Coen fans? It’s not a comedy, it’s not dense, the characters are mutes compared to some of the others that they have crafted, and the plot is not nearly as tightly woven. But it still manages to capture an emotional truth about violence and society more than their other films. It was not a caricature – it many ways, it shows where our obsession with guns and violence have gotten us.

The best scene in the film, perhaps not so surprisingly, does not focus on the fight between Llewelyn and Anton. It instead is this sort of short film that has been seemingly sandwiched into the film. The Coen’s have done this numerous times (most notably in Fargo) but this one works more than any other. This scene tells us more about the nature of the fascinating Chigurh. Throughout the film, he is not a man so much as a force (sort of like, as other reviewers have noted, the character of Death from The Seventh Seal). This demonstrates that Chigurh was never meant to be a man. He was meant to be that quiet nagging voice in the back of everyone’s mind, the one that expresses all of their fears and doubts. To play an allegory is difficult, but Bardem’s performance demonstrated how to perfectly do it.  Besides, from a technical standpoint, the scene plays out very well. It manages to create tension without the use of a blaring soundtrack or without any sort of implied violence (such as showing a weapon on screen). This scene happens before Chigurh’s purpose to the plot becomes well known. But his purpose in life has been outlined perfectly.

Did You Know?: This film was shot at the same time and in the same area as There Will be Blood. The filming of the latter often interfered with the filming of this film – the Coens had to suspend shooting for a day as P.T. Anderson’s set had released a large quantity of smoke in the air.

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