Acting is an art form, and behind every iconic character is an artist expressing themselves. Welcome to The Great Performances, a recurring column exploring the art behind some of cinema’s best roles. In this entry, we examine the ensemble cast of No Country for Old Men.
In 2007, I was in the right place at the right time. I was in downtown Austin, at the Alamo Drafthouse’s Ritz location, when I stumbled upon a sneak peek screening of the Coen Brothers’ latest film, No Country for Old Men. To be completely candid, I have zero clue how exactly I got into that preview. I was originally there for Drafthouse’s weekly Terror Thursday screenings. I may very well have just strolled into the theater knowing tickets were free and seating was general admission. But I don’t remember being that cool, so the more likely scenario is a college friend couldn’t use the tickets and offered them up to me. Less sexy than sneaking into a movie, certainly, but far more believable.
Even though I was still riding the high of watching The Return of Swamp Thing for the first time, I felt a rush of adrenaline across No Country’s opening moments as Javier Bardem uses a captive bolt pistol to puncture a hole in the head of an unsuspecting motorist. I knew immediately I was seeing something visceral and alive. It was an image that would stay with me far longer than Dick Warlock fighting stunt actors in monster suits.
The Coen Brothers film is from the Cormac McCarthy novel of the same name. It’s a hardboiled crime story strained through the lens of neo-western aesthetics. The western vibes come through the south Texas landscape, beautifully shot by Roger Deakins. This helps color the film’s moody story that the core cast of effective character actors brings to life. The overarching story follows Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) as he runs from cold-blooded contract killer Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem). Llewelyn found a suitcase filled with $2 million in the aftermath of a drug deal gone wrong. Anton wants to retrieve the money, and he’ll stop at nothing to complete his mission.
Llewelyn and Anton’s game of cat-and-mouse is central to the story’s forward thrust. But there are no clear lead characters in the film. Just regular men and women wrapped up in a situation as sharp as a knife. Therein lies the film’s true power: it’s a thrilling ensemble drama where every actor is given an opportunity to fire on all cylinders.
Rather than hitting my word count by waxing poetic on every one of these talented performances–I could dedicate 1500 words alone to Gene Jones’ work as the gas station proprietor–I will focus on three moments that truly showcase the incredible ensemble of the Coen Brothers No Country for Old Men.
The Introduction of Javier Bardem
Horror fans knew from moment one that we were going to love Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh. The waxy skin, the strange weapon, the even stranger politeness as he uses said weapon to punch a hole the size of a quarter through a man’s head. It’s just the stuff horror is made of. It makes fans of the genre sit up and say, “Oooh. I wanna know more about this guy.”
In the opening sequence, after Anton’s initial arrest, he sits behind a cop in the police station. Unbeknownst to the officer, Anton rises and methodically contorts his body so he can shift the handcuffs around him. Then, as quiet as a cat, he strikes, choking the officer with the handcuff’s chains and, through pure brute force, severs his carotid artery. As the two men struggle, the camera stays on Anton’s face. Bardem’s eyes are wide and piercing, his upper lip curled above his gums, baring his teeth like the fangs of a wild animal.
While we see Anton kill many, many people throughout No Country, this opening moment underlines just how monstrous he is more so than any other death scene in the film. Often Anton’s quiet pensiveness allows him to keep his psychotic emotions in check. Here though, they are loudly and proudly on display. What Bardem and the Coen Brothers have smartly done is erase any notions over who Anton really is. From the very beginning, we’re made to understand he’s a wild, unpredictable animal with a thirst for blood. As the cop slowly dies, Bardem turns his head toward the camera, allowing a slight smile to spread across his face. It’s a skin-crawling expression Anton will show throughout the film as he lures new victims into his deadly games, where life and death can be decided by the flip of a coin.
These opening moments introducing Anton conclude with the coin toss scene, arguably the most celebrated moment in the film, cementing the character as one of cinema’s most frightening villains. The tension Bardem creates as he goads a gas station proprietor into a contest that will dictate his life’s future is riveting, thanks in large part to the Coen Brothers’ taut script. If the opening moment shows us the animalistic monster inside Anton, this sequence reveals the human monster lurking not in the shadows but in the bright rays of the sun. He knows just how to push the proprietor’s buttons with prying questions that balance on the edge of being utterly sinister. Bardem’s Anton has already decided to kill the proprietor, he just has far more fun when he makes his victims active participants in their own demise.
Even after he loses, Anton encourages the proprietor to keep the coin, as it is now his lucky quarter. “Well done,” Bardem’s Anton says, his congratulation coming not from a place of disappointment but a rather genuine bemusement. Because typically, when people come face to face with him, there are no winners but Anton.
Woody Harrelson’s Final Moments
When Woody Harrelson’s character Carson Wells is first introduced, you may think he’s the film’s new hero. After a brief run-in with Anton in the past, he’s ready to finally hunt him down. Harrelson conveys a headstrong swagger that anyone who’s encountered Texas law enforcement will know all too well. He’s an archetype of macho confidence and control, which Anton viciously rips away once he’s trapped Carson in his web of violence.
After being led back to his room, Harrelson raises his eyes from underneath the brim of Carson’s cowboy hat, revealing an ashen face filled with the knowledge he’s about to die. In an instant, the charisma and confidence Harrelson gave Carson in his first scene is shattered. With little more than a shift in his body language, Harrelson redirects the outward energy he naturally exudes inward to convey Carson’s claustrophobic realization he’s become Anton’s next prey.
As he bargains with the devil, the blood drains from his face, and his braggadocios voice becomes a hoarse whisper. The breath has been knocked out of him as he slowly, methodically tries to buy his way out of his inevitable fate, “You don’t have to do this. I’m a day trader. I could just go home,” Carson chokes out. Anton purrs back, in complete control, “You know what’s going to happen now, Carson. You should admit your situation. There would be more dignity in it.”
Harrelson struggles to answer, his eyes cast to the floor, barely meeting Anton’s piercing stare. He chews on the inside of his mouth, his brow furrowed in frustration over his final moments as he whispers out, “You go to hell.” In a flash, Anton’s slight smile returns, and his face lights up, “All right,” he mutedly replies. Both the character and the audience can recognize what is about to happen to Carson, but the scene works because of the precision Harrelson has, shifting his energy from macho courage to mournful recognition of his untimely fate.
Tommy Lee Jones’ Brush with Death
Tommy Lee Jones plays headstrong characters that are as real as they are cinematic. Even in films with highly-stylized scenarios, like No Country, he’s still able to surface the underlying realism in every single moment. He strips away everything else and just vibes with the text, letting the script and the story drive his character’s motivations.
Here he plays Ed Tom Bell, a sheriff who’s garnered immense respect that allows him to exude a small-town charm. He’s emotionally driven, but he shows little outward expression. Each of his lines has a similar monotone delivery. I find this is Jones’ way of conveying that Ed Tom is a resolute, principled man who never loses control. He may not have the same cocksure energy of Harrelson’s Carson Wells. But we take solace in the measured nature of his speech, which reflects how he approaches his job. But he’s not one to think he is impervious to damage. He’s aware of his own mortality, a sentiment we feel in Jones’ opening monologue,
“The crime you see now, it’s hard to even take its measure. It’s not that I’m afraid of it. I always knew you had to be willing to die to even do this job. But I don’t want to push my chips forward and go out and meet something I don’t understand. A man would have to put his soul at hazard. He’d have to say, “O.K., I’ll be part of this world.”
This monologue directly informs Jones’ most chilling moment in the film. As Ed Tom sits in his car, he stares at a row of motel room doors. He knows he must go in, but he hesitates. It’s as if he already knows someone–or something–is waiting for him. The audience can tell that entering the crime scene is the last thing Ed Tom wants to do, but his begrudging sense of duty gets the better of him, and he exits his car and steps into the empty parking lot. As he cautiously approaches the door, he notices something that makes his heart drop into his stomach. The lock has been blown out by Anton’s captive bolt pistol.
As he stares at the empty space where the lock once sat, he hesitates, and something changes in his eyes. We see a mournful expression as if a supernatural power is warning him that Anton is just beyond the door. In an instant, we see a symphony of worries, fears, and doubts. It’s emotions we wouldn’t have anticipated from this dyed-in-the-wool lawman. However, once we sense those hesitations, our perception of who he really is shifting. We suddenly find ourselves screaming at the screen like it’s a horror movie, “Don’t open that door, Ed Tom! Don’t do it!” But he accepts his fate nonetheless and enters, only to find Anton has fled the scene. Relieved, he sits on the edge of the bed and buries his face in his hands. Jones is one of Texas’ finest actors, and it has never been more apparent than in this brief–but impressionable–moment.
No Country for Old Men isn’t just one of the Coen Brothers’ best films, it’s one of the best ensemble-driven movies we’ve seen in the last fifteen years. Each actor is given a moment to shine without stealing the spotlight from the stunning performances happening all around them. While I only plucked out three specific moments, there are so many more to choose from. Kelly MacDonald and Josh Brolin both have moments of engrossing tension. No Country is the crowning achievement of the Coen Brothers’ filmography. But it wouldn’t have been possible if not for the electric ensemble cast they gathered to tell this breathless western-thriller.