While hunting pronghorn in the desert, Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) comes across the aftermath of a botched drug deal which leads to him discovering a satchel with $2 million inside. Knowing that the intended owner of the money isn’t just gonna give up easily, Moss sends his wife Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald) to stay with her mother as he heads off to hide the case.
Meanwhile, Moss’s actions have attracted the attention of both the local sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) and Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), the ruthless hitman who’s been hired to recover the money.
Almost a decade after their critically acclaimed Fargo, filmmaking brothers Joel and Ethan Coen finally proved their fallibility with the Tom Hanks remake of The Ladykillers, far from the worst film I’ve seen, but still a disappointingly half-hearted effort from them. You expect better from the guys that gave us such entertaining films as Fargo, The Big Lebowski, Blood Simple, Miller’s Crossing and Barton Fink, and in 2007 they bounced back from their brief slip-up with No Country for Old Men, a critical and financial success that led to four Oscar wins – Best Supporting Actor for Javier Bardem and Best Adapted Screenplay, Director and Picture for the Coen brothers (joining only four previous directors to win three times for a single film).
This is not only the best film they’ve done since Fargo, it stands amongst their 1996 Oscar-winning film and the vastly underrated Blood Simple as one of the best films they’ve made period.
Out of their entire filmography, the Coens have only adapted a screenplay twice instead of writing their own, and they were both loose adaptations (2000’s O Brother, Where Art Thou?, based on Homer’s The Odyssey, and the remake of The Ladykillers). Knowing novelist Cormac McCarthy’s use of haunting landscapes, grim themes and complex characters, it’s no surprise as to what drew the Coens to his material, and for being more loose with their adapted films, they stay mostly true to McCarthy’s novel, aside from a few necessary liberties taken for the sake of the film’s narrative.
Like all things Coens, the use of sharp, black comedy is used and it provides some effective comic relief at times (mostly from Brolin’s matter-of-factly dialogue and Woody Harrelson’s cocky bounty hunter), but this should in no way be mistaken for a dark comedy like Fargo. No Country for Old Men is the Coens at their darkest and bleakest, and although they’re no strangers to employing graphic violence in their films, the grisly nature of it here is effectively unsettling (still hard to beat Steve Buscemi in a wood chipper though). It’s a fairly straightforward story that boils down to a cat-and-mouse game between Bardem and Brolin, with Jones serving as the lawman after the both of them. The way the Coens tell the story, though, is utterly captivating, dialing up the tension in ways only the best filmmakers are capable of doing (such as a nerve-rattling hotel showdown between Bardem and Brolin). From the moment Tommy Lee Jones’s opening line of dialogue is spoken, they establish a stark mood and atmosphere, exquisitely captured frame by frame through longtime Coen cinematographer Roger Deakins, that never once strays off its path.
The Coens are also to be commended for taking a risk on a particular filmmaking choice that might pass you by without you even noticing at first – no soundtrack (despite no score, I’d be remiss to not still give credit to the incredible work from sound designer Craig Berkey and sound editor Skip Lievsay). To those that think the score really has no bearing on the atmosphere of the film, imagine what Marion Crane’s death would be like without the iconic Psycho theme accompanying it. What if John Williams’s predatory score wasn’t lurking in the background as the shark hunted down Chief Brody, Quint and Hooper? It’s a risky move for an experienced filmmaker to take, and a foolish one for a beginner. However, the Coens are no amateurs and they certainly weren’t when they put this film together, and that they’re able to create such stirring suspense without the aid of a score speaks volumes of their filmmaking skill. That it took me ’til the end of the movie to realize that there was no film score (aside from the closing credits music) when I first saw this speaks to how much this film grabs your attention.
Part of why the film is able to hold our attention is, of course, the Coen brothers’ terrific knack for dialogue. In one scene, when Anton Chigurh pushes a convenient store clerk into a terrifying game of heads or tails, it’s so clear to the viewers and most definitely clear to the clerk that Chigurh is intent on killing him if he guesses wrong. But what makes that scene so riveting is the way their conversation plays out, and how the dialogue builds and builds between them, each knowing what’s at stake and implying what’s at stake without ever expressly stating it.
Following a long streak of forgettable performances (U.S. Marshals, Double Jeopardy, Space Cowboys, Men in Black II, The Hunted, The Missing, Man of the House, need I go on?), Tommy Lee Jones gives one of the best performances of his career, and reminds us of the talent he showed in the ’80s to early ’90s with such films as Coal Miner’s Daughter, The Big Town, JFK, Natural Born Killers and his trifecta of Andrew Davis films (The Package, Under Siege and The Fugitive). On paper, the old law-enforcing codger that doles out sage, Texas-style wisdom sounds as cliche as a character can get, but Jones brings grounded authenticity to the world-wearied sheriff and his poetic musings.
Just when it seemed like Josh Brolin disappeared after his little brother Mikey specifically told the gang that Goonies must never say die, 2007 would serve as quite the comeback for him, first appearing in Robert Rodriguez/Quentin Tarantino’s entertaining double-feature Grindhouse, then Ridley Scott’s American Gangster and lastly this film. It’s his pitch-perfect performance here, the best that he’s given to date, that is solely responsible for reviving his career. Brolin captures that small-town USA folksy demeanor just right, never playing it condescendingly like some hillbilly dimwit, but actually showing more than enough smarts to survive much longer than any one of us would ever manage to do in his situation.
That brings us to Javier Bardem’s chilling performance as Anton Chigurh, Llewelyn’s Angel of Death and one of the most merciless villains in film. Although he’s the most memorable character of the three, and for good reason, Bardem wisely doesn’t aim to overshadow Jones and Brolin. They all give three stellar performances that serve their purpose for the overall film. Sporting a doo that says “President of the Beatlemania Fan Club” more than psychopathic killer, Bardem isn’t showy, but instead displays more menace and evil with just a smile or a simple statement than an angry outburst.
I feel like I also have to give a mention to Kelly Macdonald’s performance as Llewelyn’s wife Carla Jean. She’s only in a handful of scenes, but the way she’s able to mask her Scottish brogue with a very effective southern accent is quite impressive.
As for the rather enigmatic ending, some have complained about it, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. I won’t give away what I think it means, but I’ll just say focus on Jones’s prologue and then his closing scene, and then keep an eye out for one key scene with both him and Barry Corbin’s Ellis, the handicapped retired deputy. The meaning isn’t as buried as you might think, and little subtleties will show themselves with a second viewing.
Led by the Coen brothers brilliant direction and three superb lead performances from Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem and Josh Brolin, No Country for Old Men is a gripping and hypnotic neo-Western thriller that while violent and gritty, provides great substance with its allegorical themes of fate, conscience and chance. From its brutal opening to its quietly downbeat conclusion, the Coens have crafted a compelling and intense homage to the old-school thriller that will have you hooked for every second of two-hour running time.