Part thriller, part western and part dark comedy, the genre defying No Country For Old Men is the Coen’s finest film to date, and as a fan of their previous work, I don’t make that statement lightly.
From one angle the film is a stripped down, well-crafted crime thriller. From another it’s a story about ageing, losing touch with a rapidly changing world and one man’s crisis of the soul. That man is Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), an old time sheriff in a sparsely populated, desolate county in West Texas. It’s 1980, and drug related crime and violence near the Mexican border is becoming increasingly severe. When Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), a poor hunter living in a trailer park, stumbles across a drug deal gone wrong and $2million, he see’s an easy way out and a better life for him and his wife. One mistake however, sets off an unstoppable chain of violence.
Moss is ominously tracked by Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), an almost emotionless psychopathic killing machine, hired to locate the missing money by one of the parties involved in the deal. The second party is a group of Mexicans, who are also working to salvage the cash. The result is an expertly constructed game of cat and mouse, bristling with tension and fear.
Some of the cinematography is nothing short of stunning. Take for example the scene in which Moss returns to the scene of the shootings to bring water for the wounded Mexican. As he looks back to his vehicle it is silhouetted on the ridge, moments later he turns back again, and the silhouette of a second vehicle has appeared next to his. It’s a beautiful shot, and more importantly fits it purpose by creating a real jolt of dread and fear. The ensuing chase is similarly impressive to watch, with the lightning strikes, first light of the rising sun and beaming headlights interplaying around the dark and wild Texas desert. The beautiful photography of the desert is enhanced by a strikingly quiet and empty soundscape.The intense tension built up during this cat and mouse chase is interspersed with the Coen’s trademark dry and dark humour. On second and third viewings I found the film to be much funnier than I’d originally realised. The style of humour and way in which it is delivered fits perfectly with the tone of the film and its characters.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the film however, is the real sense of place that the Coen’s manage to create. That wild, empty Texas desert is almost a character in its self. But there’s more to it than just the landscapes. Every character that appears, no matter how small a part they play, is totally believable, and feel “of the region”. Brolin is hugely convincing and I’d like to give a special mention to Garret Dillahunt for his performance as Wendell, Bells young partner. The receptionist at Moss’s trailer park, the owner of the gas station in the first coin-toss scene and the employees in various shops are all totally believable, to the extent that I have wondered whether they actually used real locals in the parts. The performance of Tommy Lee Jones as the ageing, yet very capable Sheriff, exemplifies this better than any other. It is one of the most believable performances I have ever seen. Even the monologue narrated by Jones at the beginning of the film is spot on in its tone and delivery, I could listen to it all day long. Jones character is at the heart of the film and its main themes, despite most of the screen time and action revolving around Moss, Chigurh and the money. It is important to have this in mind as the film reaches its conclusion.
The ending has received a fair amount of criticism, on certain film sites. Its ambiguity, a seemingly pointless monologue from Sheriff Bell and the decision to leave the death of Moss off screen have all been cited as weaknesses. The lack of conflict between the major characters could be seen as a let-down after the steady build up of tension throughout the film. I disagree that the ending is at all ambigous. All the main plot points are tied up, through not hugely subtle hints. It is left to the viewer to join the dots. The final words spoken by Tommy Lee Jones end the film magnificently. It is Jones character that quietly dominates the film throughout. The drug deal gone bad, Chigurh and Moss, the murders and all the action are there to dramatize his story. He’s going through something of a personal crisis, he doesn’t understand the world around him anymore with its new breed of crime and evil, he’s reaching the end of his career and thinking about what he’ll do with himself when he retires, and death is becomingly increasingly prominent in his thoughts. The final scenes involving Bell, and their dialogue, add a great deal to our understanding of his character, without at any point feeling pretentious, contrived or obvious. During the conversation with Ellis for example, when they discuss a terrible crime from 1908, Bell realises that it’s not the world that’s changing, he is. Unexplainable violence and evil has always been present, even in the old times, and that won’t change.
The film certainly rewards multiple viewings. First viewing I was very tense and missed some of the hints and comedy, but enjoyed the thriller aspect. Second viewing allowed me to pick up on a whole lot more and explain exactly what happened at each stage, as well as concentrate more on Bell. Third viewing I found it to be a lot funnier than i had realised, to the extent that for one half hour portion it could definitely be described as a comedy.
The word ‘masterpiece’ is attached to far too many new films, but in this case it’s apt.