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United States, 2007
Directed By: Joel and Ethan Coen
Written By: Joel and Ethan Coen
Starring: Josh Brolin, Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem
Running Time: 122 minutes
Rated R for strong graphic violence and some language
This review was originally published February 9th, 2008.
Joel and Ethan Coen’s No Country for Old Men is a film of many faces. It is a thrilling crime drama about a drug deal gone horribly wrong. It is a chase film. It is a character drama. It is a thinking-man’s meditation. It is a masterpiece.
At the core of No Country for Old Men is a desert drug deal that didn’t go as planned. Half of the film focuses on the investigation of this ordeal by Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) and the other follows Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) who discovers the aftermath of the deal while hunting pronghorns. Moss ends up getting himself more involved in the situation than he had planned and with a load of drug money in his hands and a supremely scary bounty hunter named Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) on his tail, runs with great speed from forces that no one can fully understand.
The Coens are confident filmmakers who have fully mastered their craft. Their direction is better than ever in this film. Each scene reveals a meticulous amount of thought on their part as each shot is perfectly framed in a classic style and the scenes flow together with a beautiful rhythm. Carter Burwell is listed in the credits as composer, but the film’s score consists of about three pulsing notes used sparingly. It is one of the best films I’ve listened to in a very long time and should win multiple awards for sound design.
Javier Bardem plays the violent and elusive bounty hunter Anton Chigurh and will remain the most memorable part of the film for many audiences. His presence is as unsettling as any film personage since Hannibal Lecter and his weapon of choice one of the most sadistically creative inventions imaginable. But in a film of brilliant performances, it is Tommy Lee Jones who stands out the most to me. It is a shame that he hasn’t been given more accolades for this performance during the 2007 awards season because his portrayal of Ed Tom Bell is a revelation. From the opening narration, to the end of the film, Jones delivers every line with precision and an ever-present sense of wonder at how much evil surrounds him. His performance is outstanding and one to which many people will relate.
One of the most fascinating things about No Country for Old Men is how the Coens handle the violent subject matter. Anton Chigurh is a villain whose presence demands the respect of even the most passive filmgoer and his merciless acts of violence are shocking and repulsive. The Coens show these acts is graphic detail, but only enough for the audience the understand that Chigurh is the embodiment of everything evil existing in the broken universe that Sheriff Bell so eloquently describes in his narration.
An age-old question is posed by the the film: what is evil and why does it exist on such an incomprehensible and unconquerable level? For all its tension and entertainment, almost every line and image of the film furthers this question. Even the moments of dark humor – for all their levity – are a part of this concept. Some have said that the third act falls apart, but the sudden nature of some weird dramatic moments reflects brokenness much better than the traditional “ending” of a narrative story ever could. It is not a happy film and there is little hope to be found. In fact, the glimmer of hope told of in the final scene is quickly snuffed away.
It has been said that such a hopeless film is bound to breed a defeatist mentality in viewers. Indeed, this is true and it is the reason I don’t recommend No Country for Old Men with gleeful and whole-hearted endorsement. Still, what the Coens and Cormac McCarthy are communicating is too important for those who have found hope amid the darkness to ignore. Evil is looming and ever-present, but it is not too dark that the light of grace and truth cannot penetrate the real world being reflected in this magnificent work of art.