When I first saw No Country For Old Men back in December, I didn’t have the slightest idea about what to do with it. I knew I enjoyed the hell out of it, but I didn’t know what to make of the final act. I decided to include it on my Top 10 list to be safe, but I knew I would have to see it a couple of more times on DVD and just this past week, I finally got that opportunity. I finally see now the masterpiece so many others have heralded the movie as, it just took a couple of extra viewings for me to open my eyes.
That is the mark of a truly great movie: learning new things with each viewing until that lightbulb in your head clicks on and suddenly, the film you’re watching is a revelation. Surprisingly, it was none of the themes that confused me, but those perplexing scenes after our protagonist meets his unfortunate end. Once I began putting the pieces together though I was able to go back and focus on the grandiose performances and how each individual character is tied to his own theme, the masterful editing and the suspenseful cat and mouse games; and then I realized how great those final thirty minutes are when the first time around they came off as frustrating.
Rather than the film sticking to one particular motif, it is a melange of greed, consequences, incomprehensible evil, and a man who feels his time has come and gone and that the contemporary world he lives in is beyond his control or understanding. While out hunting in the middle of nowhere, Llewelyn Moss, played by Josh Brolin, stumbles upon a drug deal gone bad. Everyone involved is dead. He figures there had to be a last man standing and he tracks him down. He too is dead and lying beside him is a satchel full of money. So he takes it. What would you do? If Brolin were in almost any other movie released in 2007, his performance would probably stick out as the best. He nails the Southern colloquial accent and dialogue that the Coen brothers have so brilliantly adapted from the Cormac McCarthy novel. Brolin is involved in most of the scenes in which dark humor was intended, and they probably wouldn’t have worked half as well in the hands of anyone else.
Then there’s Javier Bardem’s nefarious, indefatigable Anton Chigurh, who is nothing short of the most memorable villain to emerge in years. Chigurh is hired to retrieve the money that Moss took from the scene. Of course, the Coen brothers, and McCarthy before them, had to make Chigurh a totally original villain and not since The Silence of the Lambs has this been done so well.
They could’ve stopped at giving him a pressurized air gun as his signature weapon and been done with it, but they went much further than that. He’s more than a psychopathic killer, he’s a total enigma. He’s a man of few words and has principles no one can comprehend. He’s obsessive compulsive, he has no understanding of other human beings nor any care for their well-being and he is agitated by ignorance. He not only appears to have an ungodly ability to withstand an incredible amount of pain, but it’s as if he feels no pain at all. When he gets shot in the leg, it’s like pain does not exist; he only knows that the use of his leg has been stymied and he must fix the problem. It’s as if the devil himself is walking about the world in the form of Chigurh. The creation of Anton Chigurh is such a masterwork that you can’t help but think of the regurgitated scene of Dr. Frankenstein’s reaction to his creation being brought to life.
Finally there’s Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, played by a better than ever Tommy Lee Jones. Felicitously chosen for the part, Jones is exactly what you would picture a small county Texas sheriff to be. While at first glance, it would seem that the movie is about Moss and Chigurh, but the title is actually referring to Bell. It is unusual for the title of a film to play such an important role in determining the greatness of it, but that is exactly the case here.
Bell makes a promise to Llewelyn’s wife, Carla Jean, played by Kelly Macdonald, that he will find Lleweyln and bring him out of this mess in one piece. When he is unable to deliver on that promise, No Country starts to hone in on his character and Jones brings the film home with the best performance of his career. There are many important, brilliantly written scenes in No Country that should be broken down and analyzed in film courses, but none are as vital as the final scene in which a poignant, woebegone Bell vicariously tells his wife a dream he had about his father and how he realizes he is slowly but surely getting closer and closer to meeting the same fate he and the rest of the world shares. Yes, that’s the final scene, cut to end credits. There’s no point in getting frustrated over it and I guarantee you it does have its purpose. As Shrek would say: “Oh, you were expecting Prince Charming?”
Lets not forget two outstanding overlooked supporting turns. Let’s start with Woody Harrelson, a bounty hunting rival to Chigurh and the only man who seems to “know him every-which-way.” You could argue that his only purpose is to help us understand Chigurh a little bit, but that itself is an important purpose. He also has his fair share of creative and humorous dialogue. Then there’s Kelly MacDonald and the fact that, amidst all of the above mentioned performances, the Coens were able to make her character of such great importance is a miracle. Maybe even more spectacular is how this Scottish actress was able to create a totally original Southern character.
No Country is not only a masterpiece on a story level but on a technical one as well. Cinematography, editing, sound mixing, etc. are all superlative; although the film could stand to have a music score. The cinematography can be breathed in like fresh air, especially with the wide shots of the open country, but its not until the suspense scenes where the viewer can fully appreciate all of it. The second hotel chase sequence is one of the best to ever grace modern cinema. Recall the scene where Moss is making the jump out his window and at the precise moment he falls, Chigurh squeezes off a shot, barely missing his head. Perfection.
Whether this is the best film of 2007 or not is still up in the air in my mind. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Once, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, American Gangster, and Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, all make strong cases. Choosing between numbers 1-6 on my list is like choosing between Casablanca, Vertigo, Lawrence of Arabia, The Godfather, Citizen Kane, and Schindler’s List.
This final paragraph is specifically intended for the nay-sayers to the film’s denouement. Please excuse the Coen Brothers for breaking away from the tried and true traditions of cinema and Hollywood standards. In lieu of making a conventional thriller, the Coens brought to life something different, something unique, something that will be ruminated over for years to come. No Country For Old Men isn’t a great work of modern cinema, it’s a film that revolutionizes modern cinema itself.