Cormac McCarthy and the Coen brothers

No Country for Old Men (2007)

Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen

Produced by Scott Rudin & Joel and Ethan Coen

Screenplay by Joel and Ethan Coen

Based on “No Country for Old Men” by Cormac McCarthy

Country: USA     |     Run Time: 122 min

By Colin Hart

Grade: A+

Certain directors’ works warrant a longer look.  The Coen brothers are two of my favorite filmmakers, and yet I still think they are somewhat underrated.  This is a longer and more in-depth look at something worth talking about—one of the Coens’ undisputed masterpieces, No Country for Old Men.

This is not a typical review, then.  It’s more of an in-depth analysis, complete with spoilers, speculations and opinions.  A deep dive, if you will.

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Cormac McCarthy is one of the greatest writers of the 20th century.  He stands apart from his few contemporaries in that his work touches on a rarer, more ancient type of sublime—an earthy and epic imperishability more akin to William Faulkner or Herman Melville or the Holy Bible.

I’ll let it be known that I hold McCarthy’s 1985 novel Blood Meridian to be one of the finest novels ever written.  It is truly the greatest Western ever, regardless of medium.

After the coming-of-age Border trilogy, 2005’s No Country for Old Men was somewhat of a return to McCarthy’s previous meditations on life and death.  Yet in terms of prose and philosophical discussion, No Country is much more stripped down and streamlined.  Relative to Blood Meridian, Suttree or The Road, No Country for Old Men is Cormac McCarthy’s pulp novel—McCarthy Lite, if you will.

A minor novel by a major writer as adapted by a first-rate filmmaker is always a recipe for success.  Just look at The Shining or Inherent Vice.  The Coen brothers stay remarkably faithful to No Country for Old Men’s source text right down to the abruptly anticlimactic ending.  However, they manage to imbue their visual imagery with the apocalyptic tone of Blood Meridian.  Which in turn makes No Country for Old Men one of the greatest films of the 21st century.

220px-Cormac_McCarthy_NoCountryForOldMen.jpgFirst thing you’ll notice in a Coen film is the setting.  No Country for Old Men—which is now and forever the Coens’ story, such a fine fucking job they have done—returns the brothers to Texas, the site of their debut feature, Blood Simple.  And there are some similarities between the two neo-noir cat-and-mouse thrillers.  But not too many.  Whereas Blood Simple was a juicy blue-collar yarn full of love triangles and triple crosses, No Country is a minimalist allegory of good and evil.

I’ll return to the literature metaphor—The prose is often what separates great writers from good ones (the storytelling is what separates the good from the bad).  Dialogue becomes secondary.  I recently read Don DeLillo’s White Noise; the dialogue was the worst part.  It’s DeLillo’s prose that makes him one of our greatest living writers (literary critic Harold Bloom was right on the money).  Cormac McCarthy, for that matter, doesn’t even attribute or use quotation marks in his dialogue.  Half of it is in Spanish; Cormac don’t give a shit.

Prose—words, dummy—cannot be adapted visually, but its cinematic counterpart is known to those film buff snobs as mise-en-scéne.  Or visual style, to us regular joes and janes.  Either way, the Coens are experts and are at their absolute peak in No Country for Old Men, directorially speaking.  The film goes long stretches without dialogue, allowing the acting and mise-en-scène to shine through.

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A couple grafs ago, I duly noted that this film is “a minimalist allegory of good and evil.”  Feel free to blurb that on the No Country for Old Men 15th Anniversary Blu-Ray box set.  The Coens accomplish this through the way their camera captures West Texas’ vast emptiness, owing much to Sam Peckinpah.

The film begins with voiceover narration (verbatim from the book) backed by lonely images of oil wells and street signs—the only vertical objects for miles.  When we are first introduced to Josh Brolin’s character, Llewelyn Moss, he is hunting pronghorns from a bluff overlooking a vast expanse.  The entire shadow of a large cloud rolls over the plain—an image that encapsulates the film itself.

When the story becomes a chase, the Coens prefer to film in darkness.  The characters prefer turning the lights off anyways.  Shadowy motel hallways meet shadowy empty streets en route to dimly lit bedrooms.  Anton Chigurh—our psychopathic almost-supernatural Big Bad—is like a shadow himself.  The other two main characters, Brolin’s Llewelyn Moss and Tommy Lee Jones’ aging Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, only see his silhouette.

The theme is in the title.  You can’t outrun what’s coming.  You can’t hide from it either, let alone stop it.  Superimposed against the boundless flat landscape, the three main characters are isolated in their solitude.  They’re out in the open, even though they try not to be.  Man versus man, or man versus country?

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The story is relatively simple.  Llewelyn Moss comes across the aftermath of a drug deal gone wrong in the desert.  He finds $2 million cash, sends his wife to stay with her mother, and goes on the run.  Chasing him is the benevolent killer Anton Chigurh, who will stop at nothing to retrieve the stolen loot.  And lagging behind is the elder Sheriff Bell, who cannot make sense of all the surprising violence and carnage that ensues.

Once the story gets going—which only takes a few minutes—the editing is flawless.  I’ve always held an affinity for well-made movies that follow a “procession of scenes” structure.  The more defined, the better.  There are no fade-outs or irises in No Country, but the Coens employ a masterful pace in which we spend time individually with each character.  We really get to know them.

We get to know the characters so well that a good deal of the film operates with spare dialogue.  The characters—mainly Moss and Chigurh—tap into a primal mode; all action and quick thinking.

Much of the movie operates as one relentless chase scene but this isn’t like Fury Road, for all you yung cineastes out there.  No Country is very deliberate in its pace.  It takes its time, with an extremely realist aesthetic.  Death does creep up on you slowly, after all.  Before it strikes, that is.

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Ironically, the film has many “instrumental” passages.  By that I mean there are large sections without dialogue.  Ironic because the instrumental soundtrack is even more sparse than the dialogue.  Being so full of violence and bloodbaths, this film stays forebodingly quiet.  When Chigurh is on the hunt, for example, he takes off his boots and equips his shotgun with a massive silencer.

Much of the wordless charm depends on the actors’ perfect timing.  The characters—Moss, Chigurh and Bell—all have great powers of deduction.  They quickly come to well thought-out realizations based on examining their surroundings— A truck in the parking lot means someone is waiting to kill you; a coin on the floor means it was used to unscrew an air vent for hiding money.  It is to the Coens’ credit that we come to these same conclusions sans dialogue as easily as the guys onscreen.

Yet many of the film’s finest scenes are, in fact, great dialogues.  The ending monologue is a showstopper that I’ll get to later, but a scene at a lonely Texaco station is quite possibly the most memorable of the film.

In it, Chigurh imparts his dark moral philosophies upon an unknowing shopkeeper, ordering the man to call the flip of a coin.  What’s being won or lost on this coin toss? Nothing more than the man’s life, though Chigurh doesn’t explicitly state it. (“You stand to win everything.”)  Remarkable tension is sustained, and the back and forth between Chigurh and the shopkeeper is as gripping as any you’ll ever see.  It’s not a cheat, either, when the man’s life is spared.

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The most intriguing of the three main characters is obviously Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh.  His shadow haunts every frame of the film, in a way.  After Bell’s opening narration, we see Chigurh arrested on the highway and brought back to the station.  As the officer is on the phone, Chigurh steps through his cuffs and brutally chokes the man to death.  The scene lasts longer than you would initially expect, as Chigurh wrestles the man to the floor—wordlessly, of course—until blood spurts out of his throat.  Scuff marks from their boots have made a deathly expressionist arc on the floor.

Right off the bat, Chigurh is as cold-blooded as a komodo and as inherently evil as Lucifer himself.  His weapon of choice is an air-pressure gun that is used to slaughter livestock.  He also sports the worst haircut ever seen.  Only more reason to christen him Greatest Villain of All Time.

He murders several people throughout the film, whether they are in similar lines of work or just random civilians.  Only Chigurh does not believe in “random.”

Chigurh has a strict code that he follows to justify his killing.  He is the Hand of Fate, doling out cosmic justice as necessary.  Your entire life has been leading up to this, or, I got here the same way the coin did, or, I gave my word.  You don’t have to do this, they always say.  Sometimes a coin flip is the best judgment he can allow.  Twisted morals, but the Coens capture it in a way that almost makes sense.

He even shoots at a bird on a bridge just to remind it of its place in the world.

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If I can recall correctly, Anton Chigurh in Cormac’s book was a very evil figure, but not the supernatural specter that the Coens depict.  In the novel, Chigurh is given more identity; character, if you will.  In the film, Chigurh comes to represent the evil of all mankind.  You could say that he is Death or the Devil himself—not all that dissimilar from the sheriff in O Brother, Where Art Thou? or the biker in Raising Arizona.

He cares not for laws or contracts or money, even.  Chigurh, like fate, is ultimately inescapable.  And invincible too.  He survives gun shots, broken bones, you name it, but he always comes back.

The Coens’ Anton Chigurh reminds me of McCarthy’s Judge Holden (from Blood Meridian).  Both are inexplicable near-supernatural characters that represent the embodiment of evil.  Both are among the most memorable characters any fan of the arts is likely to ever come across.

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But even Anton Chigurh can’t outrun fate.  Near the end, just after having (presumably) killed Llewelyn Moss’ widow, he gets into a horrible wreck when a driver runs a red light.  He is bloodied with a bone sticking out of his arm, yet he still gives $100 to a kid so he can use his shirt as a sling.  He limps away into the neighborhood as the ambulances arrive.

Perhaps Chigurh recuperates and is quickly putting his population-slashing theories to practice.  Perhaps he succumbs to his wounds and dies.  Perhaps he is finally caught by the authorities.  Whatever the case may be, even the hand of fate can’t outrun itself.  Sometimes, fate isn’t as cut-and-dry as a coin flip.  Sometimes it is beyond all control—like someone else not noticing that the lights had changed.

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Brolin’s Llewelyn Moss spends the entire film trying to outrun fate…er, Chigurh.  For a while, he is very successful, not outsmarting Chigurh per se but definitely staying a half-step ahead of him for as long as he can.

Moss is a type of everyman character, morally sound but looking to cash in on a lucky break.  Is it a bad thing that he took the money for himself? After all, he did go back to the desert late at night with the plans of giving water to one of the survivors.

However, Moss sticks to his guns and keeps hold of the money at all costs.  Even if Chigurh will try and obtain that money at all costs.  The suitcase ultimately becomes a MacGuffin—Moss and Chigurh stand for something far greater than a bounty hunt through West Texas.

Like Chigurh’s circumstance near the end of the film, Moss simply can’t outrun or control fate.  It’s hard to stay a half-step ahead when there are more and more people closing in on you.  There are multiple parties searching for the money, and Moss ultimately meets his end—offscreen, no less—during a shootout with some Mexicans.

On first viewing, Moss’ death should come as a shock.  He has been the “hero,” of sorts, and it seemed like a final showdown with Chigurh was inevitable for the grand finale.  That he meets his end in such an inglorious fashion—not even at the hands of Chigurh (or even in the eye of the camera)—actually plays perfectly into the uber-realist vibe.

Moss was trying to look out for what’s coming.  But nobody ever sees that.

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When Sheriff Bell—who is the film’s heart and soul—stumbles upon the immediate aftermath of the shootout that has left Llewelyn dead on the motel floor, he is exasperated.  He even tells the little girl next door to call the police, because he knows he is of no help here.  In a sense, he is completely and utterly defeated.

Chigurh and Moss personify the struggle between good and evil, fate and chance.  Sheriff Bell represents the old ways now gone, an inability to comprehend society’s dark turn for the worst.  This is no country for old men, after all.

While Chigurh’s pursuit of Moss is only a half-step behind, Bell’s investigation lags by two or three steps.  Irreparable events have already been set in motion by the time Bell and Deputy Wendell come across the trucks in desert.  The closest Bell comes to Chigurh is when he goes to investigate Moss’ trailer and notices that the milk on the table is still sweating (which Chigurh had poured for himself in his earlier sweep of the trailer).  Bell drinks from the same glass and stares at his reflection in the TV in the exact same way that Chigurh had—one of the film’s lasting images.

The sheriff is an old man in a cruel and ever-changing land.  He tries to do the right thing throughout, but how much can he even offer anymore?  He takes his time with the investigation, mind wandering, not much sense of urgency.  Tommy Lee Jones’ great, understated performance shows that Sheriff Bell knows his limitations.

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After Moss’ death, the film becomes a meditation on dying, as the now-retired Sheriff Bell comes to terms with his own mortality.  The timeline doesn’t feature a big or noticeable jump, but it feels like Bell is ready to accept the big sleep.

The final scenes are conversational and meditational.  Bell meets with his recluse brother, who recounts an instance in 1909 when their Uncle Mac was ruthlessly killed in his own doorway.  Perhaps the times aren’t changing after all; they are just staying the course.

And then there’s the ending, which is one of the greatest I’ve seen.  Bell recounts two dreams he had to his wife, both about his father.  “It’s peculiar.  I’m older now than he ever was by about 20 years. So in a sense he’s the younger man.”  The first dream was about meeting him in town (“…to give me some money, but I think I lost it.”)  The second takes place in olden times, both of them riding horseback through a snowy mountain pass in the night.  His father passes him, holding fire in a horn, and rides onward into the dark.

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And in the dream I knew that he was goin’ on ahead and he was fixin’ to make a fire somewhere out there in all that dark and all that cold, and I knew that whenever I got there he would be there.  And then I woke up…

This is how No Country for Old Men ends—acceptance of death.  It is fitting and true to the nature of the film, but it comes so sudden and without fanfare.  Even more anticlimactic than Moss’ death.  But it is utter perfection.

Cormac McCarthy loves a touch of ambiguity to conclude his novels (Blood Meridian and The Road are among the best), and the Coen brothers love it even more in their films.  It is almost verbatim to the book, but this is still the most Coen ending that the Coens have ever put on.  It puts Barton Fink’s beach portrait and A Serious Man’s tornado to shame, while giving you something to ponder for days, maybe weeks.

It’s the greatest anticlimax since The Sopranos, and you know how I feel about that…

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No Country for Old Men is one of the finest films released since the turn of the millennium.  And it may not even be the Coens’ best. (The Big Lebowski, anyone?)  That’s a testament to their unbelievable talent.

A film it is often compared to is Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will be Blood (2008), both being anti-westerns released in close proximity.  Both have similar tones (and endings!), but they cover far different themes.  The Coens’ film has less faults, but they are both masterpieces in their own right.  Anderson’s adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice connects the filmmakers even closer.

But comparisons are often fruitless.  Especially when some films (and filmmakers) are without compare.

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