Should I Watch..? 'No Country For Old Men'
What's the big deal?
No Country For Old Men is a neo-western crime thriller film released in 2007 and is based on the novel of the same name by Cormac McCarthy. Written and directed by Joel & Ethan Coen, the film follows a poacher who stumbles across a briefcase full of cash, a murderous hitman in pursuit and a local sheriff trying to prevent an all-out war between the two. The film stars Josh Brolin, Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem, Woody Harrelson and Kelly Macdonald. Like the book, the film deals with themes such as fate versus self-determination, morality and the changing world between the Old West and modern society. The film received near-universal acclaim from critics, many of them calling the film the best film in the Coens' career and Bardem in particular receiving attention for his performance. The film was the most successful picture in the Coen brothers' career with global takings of $171 million until 2010's True Grit and would win four Oscars and numerous other awards. It is still considered one of the best films of the decade as well as one of the best films this century.
What's it about?
In the west of Texas in 1980, poacher Llewelyn Moss is hunting in rural land near the Rio Grande when he stumbles across an apparent drug deal that went wrong. Among the corpses and abandoned cars, he finds a briefcase containing $2 million which he claims for himself and his wife Carla Jean. Returning to the scene the next night, he narrowly escapes from two men in a truck and urges Carla Jean to stay with her mother. As she leaves, Llewelyn heads to a motel in Del Rio and awaits his pursuers.
Unfortunately, he has bigger problems than the Mexican cartels. A vicious killer called Anton Chigurh has escaped from police custody and is hired to recover the money. As Anton leaves a violent trail for local sheriff Ed Tom Bell to follow, the lawman begins to realise that his relaxed style of policing simply isn't effective in today's society. Will Llewelyn escape with the money or will Chigurh's ruthless efficiency get the better of him?
Tommy Lee Jones
Sheriff Ed Tom Bell
Carla Jean Moss
Joel & Ethan Coen
Joel & Ethan Coen*
Release Date (UK)
18th January, 2008
Crime, Drama, Thriller
Best Film, Best Supporting Actor (Bardem), Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay
Academy Award Nominations
Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing
What's to like?
For casual movie-goers, the Coen Brothers have a slight reputation about them for being defiantly indie. Early films like Raising Arizona or Fargo feel at odds with conventional cinema, with oddball characters engaged in screwball plots. But while No Country For Old Men is not exactly conventional, it is possibly one of their most accessible movies with a plot that's easy to follow and sticks to a good-versus-shady-versus-evil narrative. What's also unusual for this Coen film is the explicit violence on display which is both horrifying and brutal in equal measures. Instead of glamorizing the action like most Hollywood films, the Coens shoot it in a matter-of-fact manner which makes it feel like a documentary. But it's also senseless with little in the way of victory. Characters are killed with little fanfare or glory and it gives the film a dark, oppressive atmosphere - as does Bardem as Chigurh, a villain for the ages who is both enthralling and repulsive in equal measure.
Bardem rightly takes the plaudits for his performance but he is ably supported by his co-stars. Jones is perfectly cast as the increasingly jaded sheriff slowly realising that he is no longer capable of upholding the law in this modern world while Macdonald is surprisingly effective as the southern belle caught up in the chaos. Much like their remake of True Grit, the Coens give the film a stark beauty with the parched landscape of the American West revived for this neo-western. But the tension starts from the very beginning and doesn't let up until the final reel which offers a slightly ambiguous climax. There is more going on beneath the surface than it initially appears and readers of the novel will undoubtedly get the most out of the film than those who haven't.
- While shooting in Texas, filming was delayed by a large cloud of black smoke drifted across the horizon. This was because There Will Be Blood was shooting nearby and the director Paul Thomas Anderson was testing out pyrotechnics. Both films would later become the leading contenders at the Academy Awards.
- Bardem's victory at the Academy Awards made him the first Spanish actor to win an Oscar - he was also the first Spanish actor to be nominated in 2000. The film is also only the second in history to share the award between two directors after West Side Story in 1961.
- According to a January 2018 article, a group of psychiatrists examined 400 films and identified 126 characters they might officially diagnose as psychotic. They chose Bardem's portrayal of Anton Chigurh as the most clinically accurate portrayal of a psychopath.
- The film's editor, Roderick Jaynes, is a pseudonym for the Coen Brothers who have co-directed, co-edited and co-written all of their films since 1984's Blood Simple. This is due to Guild membership rules stating that only one editor can work on a film. Joel Coen has said that if 'Jaynes' was to win an Oscar then the presenter would claim it on 'his' behalf.
What's not to like?
As a film, there isn't much of anything wrong with No Country For Old Men. It is one of those movies that the less you know, the better it is and I'm scared to say too much in case I spoil it for you. I will say that the ending felt a little flat for me and there wasn't enough of Tommy Lee Jones on screen, despite his wonderful performance. I also would have liked a little bit more exposition - the film is only a smidge over two hours in length but I would have appreciated an extra ten or twenty minutes to allow the film to really explore these fascinating characters in depth. Bardem's Chigurh, for instance, has the awful magnetism of Darth Vader or Hannibal Lecter - a truly monstrous and otherworldly character who could be the Grim Reaper himself but one that you can't help but find intriguing. Even his preferred weapon of choice - a cattle stun gun - leads to more questions than answers.
While ultimately overshadowed that year by The Dark Knight, I firmly believe that this is one of the best films this side of the Millennium and probably the best film of the Coen brothers' career. It's so refreshing to find a thriller that actually lives up to that title as this bloody cat-and-mouse chase film is one of the most thrilling pictures I've had the privilege to enjoy. It might lack some of the off-beat humour that often typifies other Coen brothers' films but this movie is jet-black in tone throughout and is much better for it. That light at the end of this tunnel really is a freight train at full speed...
Should I watch it?
No Country For Old Men is one of the most complete pictures I've ever seen - a visually stunning and wonderfully performed chase flick that treats you like an adult and offers thrills, chills and pathos in equal measures. I just wish that I'd read the book beforehand and frankly, there isn't much more to be said.
Great For: fans of the book, Bardem's awards cabinet, McCarthy's book sales
Not So Great For: the squeamish, anyone with Chigurh's haircut, anyone who missed this on a big screen (like I did)
What else should I watch?
The Coen brothers have been producing films for decades and have assembled the sort of back catalogue that even Pixar Studios would be envious of. From comedies like Raising Arizona and O Brother, Where Art Thou? to arthouse remakes of The Ladykillers and True Grit to more grittier films like Miller's Crossing and The Man Who wasn't There - their list of films garnering critical praise is almost second to none. Arguably, their two biggest hits to date - Fargo and The Big Lebowski - continue to find audiences two decades after their release, despite their off-beat and complex narratives. In essence, the Coens make films who people who just love their movies and appreciate the craft.
The American West continues to inspire film-makers of all types, both with traditional tales as well as contemporary stories. Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain was a equally-well received picture depicting two cowboys falling in love with each other while director Robert Rodriguez produced possibly the three most violent westerns in history in his El Mariachi trilogy including his breakout film Desperado. But if you're looking for a proper western then there's really only two names you should look for - star Clint Eastwood and director Sergio Leone. Together on A Fistful Of Dollars, the pair revolutionised the genre and their fruitful relationship would ultimately lead them to the epic The Good, The Bad And The Ugly which is as good a place to start your western experience as you will find.
© 2019 Benjamin Cox