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Dissecting the Classics: No Country for Old Men

September 28, 2018 | Posted by Aaron Hubbard
Javier Bardem No Country For Old Men

Welcome to Dissecting the Classics . In this column, I analyze films that are almost universally loved and considered to be great. Why? Because great movies don’t just happen by accident. They connect with initial audiences and they endure for a reason. This column is designed to keep meaningful conversation about these films alive.

No Country for Old Men

Wide Release Date: November 9, 2007
Written, Edited and Directed By: Joel and Ethan Coen
Produced By: Scott Rudin, Joel and Ethan Coen
Cinematography By: Roger Deakins
Music By: Carter Burwell
Production Company: Scott Rudin Pictures and Mike Zoss Productions
Distributed By: Miramax Films and Paramount Vantage
Javier Bardem as Anton Chigurh
Tommy Lee Jones as Ed Tom Bell
Josh Brolin as Llewelyn Moss
Kelly Macdonald as Carla Jean Moss
Woody Harrelson as Carson Wells

What Do We All Know?

Joel and Ethan Coen were well established as a brand by 2007, but No Country for Old Men likely cemented them as modern masters. The film generated a huge buzz on the festival circuit before eventually working its way to four Oscar wins, including Best Picture and Best Director(s), first time wins for the Coens. The film won an additional 72 awards from a total of 109 nominations, and is easily the most celebrated film of 2007. Which, if you’ve forgotten, also had celebrated modern classics Hot Fuzz and There Will Be Blood in its twelve month span. Indeed, many critics consider this movie to be the finest film in its decade.

While my personal pick would be Spirited Away, I do believe this is the best live action movie from that time frame. This is the Coens’ masterpiece, a film that takes their obsession with circumstance and nihilism to their darkest extremes. It is a methodically crafted, quietly riveting, and thought provoking meditation on the harsh unfairness of life and the cold inevitability of death. The narrative respects and challenges its audience, telling all they need to know to understand its meaning, but refusing to spell it out or give easy answers.

What Went Right?

This one probably requires a plot synopsis to provide a frame of reference, so if you haven’t seen No Country for Old Men and wish to see it spoiler-free, I recommend coming back to read this after doing so. So, briefly, most of the film revolves around Llewelyn Moss, a Vietnam veteran who comes into possession of a great deal of money when he happens upon the aftermath of a drug deal gone wrong. Unfortunately for him, this draws the attention of Anton Chigurh, a man whom death follows everywhere. Chigurh is pursued by Carson Wells as well as Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, a man who is nearing retirement and feels overwhelmed by the darkness in the world. As these men pursue, evade and outsmart each other, we see the depths that people will go to in order to run from death, the unavoidable certainty of that death, and the defeated acceptance that the world is and always has been a violent, heartless place where death is the only certain thing.

A defining aspect of this film is how it usually chooses to reveal character through action over dialogue. We learn right away that Chigurh is a ruthless killer, and his weapon of choice lets us know he views other people as cattle. Chigurh and Moss both say “hold still” to their prey within about a minute of screen time, reinforcing Chigurh as a hunter of men. We can tell by the cautious yet confident approach Moss makes toward the drug deal that he is familiar with life or death situations, and he will risk his life for money. But we also see that he has some principles, even if he is reluctant to act on it – he returns to the site with water for the one survivor, an act that makes his life worse. These early actions dictate everything about Chigurh and Moss’ conflict. We aren’t just told how capable they are, we are shown first and then dialogue reinforces what we already know.

This is just one way in which the film respects its audience. It gives us information and trusts us to make reasoned assumptions. But sometimes it uses that against you. Assuming you have heard a story or seen a movie in your life, the film sets up a confrontation between Chigurh and Moss only to have Moss killed by the drug dealers who were also searching for him. Off screen. It’s sudden, unexpected and deeply unsatisfying, all in service of a point. Death is an outlaw, and it has no respect for the laws of humans or the rules of storytelling. Death is sudden, unpredictable, unfair and always lacks a satisfying meaning. We can try to make sense of it, but until you come to terms with its cruelty, you will always fear it.

Thus the film lets us know that Moss isn’t the protagonist. He and Chigurh are players in a tragedy about the harshness of the world, and the unfair but inevitable nature of death. This is done to get us in the mindset of the true protagonist: Ed Tom Bell. He gave us the opening narration, waxing poetic about the simpler morality of the old west as we see the hostile Texas landscapes showing a world free of that morality and ready to strike us down. Bell thinks he can make sense of what came before, because what lies in the future scares him. Retirement and death are unavoidable, but he doesn’t want to meet something he doesn’t understand. By investigating this case that we’ve been following, he eventually reaches the same conclusions we do. He understands exactly why this is No Country for Old Men.

While Bell is the heart of the film, Chigurh does prove to be the most iconic. This role put Javier Bardem on the international map in a big way. His calm demeanour, with violence always bubbling menacingly under the surface, is utterly terrifying. The frequency and efficiency of his kills are frightening enough, but it’s his lack of emotion that really sinks it. This is a man more concerned about blood getting onto his boots than with the life he just took. And the only way you might survive is if he favors you with a coin toss. He may not wear a cloak or carry a scythe, but Chigurh is Death incarnate if ever there was one. He is the perfect antagonist for a film about the amoral certainty of our demise.

What Went Wrong?

Nothing is wrong with No Country for Old Men. Honestly, I could go on about this movie for a long time, but I’ve got a deadline and this film is existential depressing. So I’m gonna wrap it up.

And In Summary…

This one is a masterpiece, easily the Coen Brothers’ best film and one of the top movies of the young century. It flawlessly combines the neo western with procedural crime drama, strong characterization with dramatic tension, and big, iconic moments with subtle theming. It’s a film that demands its audience engage with the narrative to paint the whole picture, to figure things out for themselves instead of being told what to think. Anton Chigurh is one of cinema’s greatest antagonists, while Josh Brolin and Tommy Lee Jones share the role of protagonist while defying the traditional hero’s journey. This is a must watch film in my book, and one that really challenged my perspective of what great film could be. In a year with There Will Be Blood and Hot Fuzz, this movie still towered above the rest.

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