No Country for Old Men (2007)

Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen

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By Roderick Heath

A few years back, Billy Bob Thornton adapted Cormac McCarthy’s All The Pretty Horses for the screen. The film was mutilated from its original four-hour cut and entirely dismissed by critics and audiences. I liked it. It had a rugged poetry. I liked it much more than this film. No Country for Old Men has gained almost universal raves. C’est la vie.
ncfom-767831.jpgNo Country for Old Men tells of Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin), a Vietnam veteran living in a trailer in West Texas with his young wife Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald). He’s out hunting one day when he discovers the aftermath of a drug deal gone bad. Bodies litter the landscape, one Mexican man with a hole in his gut groans for water, and Llewellyn finds $2 million in a suitcase. He takes the money, but in the middle of the night decides to go help the wounded man. When he gets there, the man is dead, and some of his accomplices arrive and chase Llewellyn, who barely escapes. He returns home, tells Carla to pack off to her mother’s house in Odessa, before proceeding south by himself to await his pursuers. He figures on mere human adversaries. What he gets instead is Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), a hulking, soulless psychopath who’s sort of lump of walking Dostoyevskian anxiety about what the world without god, dominated instead by chance and nature, will look like. Llewellyn and Anton match wits as the dead-eyed monster of existentialism pursues the stoic warrior of American ambition.

No%20country%20Tommy%20Lee.jpgA Hitchcockian story in Peckinpah country, the film has been paced and constructed by the Coens as a thriller, but it’s not a thriller. Chigurh is, in essence, an Angel of Death, though he’s certifiably “real” in that he has a job, identity, even a disgruntled boss. A Dallas businessman (Stephen Root) who seems to be running the drug deals, has sent Chigurh out, and, realising he’s a loose cannon, assigns another operative, Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson), to intervene. Chigurh likes to subject random people to coin-toss choices that will determine whether he kills them or not. McCarthy’s thesis is that often crime has no motivation, that an anonymous, senseless type of evil infests modern life, and the representative of old-timey values, local sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), bemoans this process and proves impotent to hold off this dissolution into moral turpitude.

I could argue with McCarthy’s point, but we’ll take it at face value for the moment. McCarthy is an exceptionally cagey writer, who, like Hemingway, perceives humans more as phenomena of nature than as individuals. His style is well pitched to evoke the symbolism inherent in his tales. McCarthy, fundamentally, is a poet. The Coens, on the other hand, approach this material with a procedural eye. The sequences of Chigurh’s hunt are riveting cinema, but much ado about nothing; there’s a long sequence where Llewellyn hides the money and then extracts it, trying to beat the clock on Chigurh’s arrival that’s breathtaking filmmaking, but ridiculously clumsy activity. But the Coens find no poetic discourse in the material. They have been poetic, mostly in early films; the wind-driven hat of Miller’s Crossing (1990) and the big clock in The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) are some of the most affecting images in modern film. But the template for No Country is Fargo (1996), their last cool, blackly comic crime drama and their most overrated film. When they make serious films, they become watchmakers; the cogs are brilliant and shiny, but they do not sing. They include the usual absurdist epigrams and endless supply of caricatured American types to leaven the brutality, and elide convention by having the real climaxes occur off-screen. For example, Bell and Carla come across Llewellyn dead, brought down not by Chigurh but by some of the Mexican drug dealers, gunned down along with hapless bystanders in an El Paso motel.

Yeah, yeah, I get how wonderfully clever and unclichéd it is to set up a chase thriller and then throw it out the window. You know what? Go take a running jump, Joel, Ethan. No Country for Old Men is a hollow piece of work. The Coens cannot reveal much about their characters to make a statement about the tragedy of death carry weight. We have hints of motivation, but Llewellyn, Bell, and Anton are all robbed of a complex inner life that might make this drama build to tragedy. We’re supposed to be shocked and haunted by the epigrammatic finale where Anton fulfils a threat to Llewellyn, even though he’s dead, by tracking down and executing his wife, but she’s such a pasty character, there’s not much impact there either, even though the wonderful Macdonald does her best to imbue the part with a blowsy appeal. But my irritation with No Country began before it dynamited its own story. The story is thin, and after the central gun fight between Anton and Llewellyn, illogic begins to take a grip. The characters start acting in odd, even stupid ways, and all of the supporting characters were the usual Coen Bros cut-outs.
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Anton’s evil is a cipher, a gimmick, an obvious way of summarizing a theme. Wells describes Anton as being driven by a kind of code, an honour system of death, which is as big a load of claptrap as I’ve ever heard. Anton’s actions are occasionally governed by some sort of philosophy of chance, but why he then shoots his own employers and decides to go after the money for himself is entirely opaque. Wait—he’s a self-serving renegade but also a kind of moral force? There seems to be a suggestion Chigurh is punishing the sinners of the world for their sins and the innocents for their blind innocence, and suggests he himself is only alive and in any one spot, performing any one action, through the constant turns of chance.

There’s a deep confusion in this philosophy. Is it about a fracturing, godless universe where all fate is cruel and inevitable, or is it about the notion that what goes around comes around? Either way, Chigurh’s such a blank, bleak creature that the audience laps up his evil appeal; he’s so precise, without caution, mercy, or similarity to any living human, that he’s an almost comforting villain. No scene in No Country is as tense and disquieting a contemplation of psychopathy as the central pas de deux of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, a film that demanded infinitely more complex assignations of sympathy.

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Llewellyn, too, is an odd beast of a hero. His decision to take water to the dying man, late as it is, signals him as a man of conscience, and he defies Chigurh with Charles Bronson-esque pith, refusing—as Carla does later—to accept Chigurh’s predestination. There is a sense, not developed, that Llewellyn and Chigurh are two sides of the same coin, both skilled, ruthless, cunning, and determined. Llewellyn is casually dispatched, and Chigurh left to go his merry way. What a bust! Why doesn’t Anton kill Bell when Bell almost finds him in Moss’s motel room? Does Chigurh “respect” the lawman? Does this have something to do with the dream Bell recounts at the end, where he’s led through the darkness by a fire lit by an unseen figure—having been passed by the bad angel, a good angel promises a peaceful end for the righteous man? What is righteousness? Is Llewellyn’s taking of the money an act that damns him no matter what he does?

To be sure there’s a political element in all this. Llewellyn wants to save himself and his wife from a life of living in a trailer park after having been used and thrown away by his country; the drug deals are actually run by businessmen who use poor people and psychos to enforce their actions. Not exactly new themes, though. The car crash that almost claims Anton at the end seems to hint at some divine justice, but why leave him with a broken arm? Why was the scene there at all? Some kids are kind to Anton, and he’s kind to them back. Is he then an agent of karmic balance? Or just a bogeyman?

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I can’t fault the cast or the technical aspects. Josh Brolin, The Goonies a long way behind him now, provides a sturdy Llewellyn, reminiscent of Kris Kristofferson in look and cadences, and Jones’ aging mug evokes a worn-out soul effortlessly. Bardem has gained the most plaudits as Chigurh, which is fair enough; his droll deliveries, physical command, and occasional vivid flourishes (his eyes grow wide and ecstatic in strangling a policeman) provide the film’s most hypnotic moments. But frankly, it’s a piddling role for Bardem, one of the finest actors alive, compared to his multilayered protagonists in films like Live Flesh (1997) and The Dancer Upstairs (2002). The filmmaking is imbued with the brother’s own laser-edge editing and brilliant photography by Roger Deakins. And the film, deeply flawed as it is once the visceral impact fades, represents a return to challenging form for the Coens after several anorexic comedies.

The trouble is, the Coens just can’t do dread. Bergman could do dread. David Lynch can do it. The Coens are comedians, not tragedians. Their approach to life and death on the cinema screen is capricious. No Country is almost a remake of Raising Arizona, played for thrills rather than laughs; Anton is the straight-faced equivalent of the Lone Rider of the Apocalypse, and about as believable. Unless they’re directly copying a model (like The Hudsucker Proxy imitates Capra), the Coens rarely built a truly compelling narrative. They used to make up for this with shows of energy and invention. They’re admirable in their attempts to always take the road less travelled, but I see few signs of them being capable of making a film that’s more than a generic deconstruction. Most of their films, for all the wit, are little more than ramshackle collusions of blackout sketches, improperly finished and lacking substance, with The Big Lebowski and O Brother, Where Art Thou? representing their most frustrating efforts.

Sam Peckinpah used to make movies like this as almost second nature, reinforcing his own harsh worldview with a vivid, gorged sense of life as it is lived and as it is given up. No Country reads like a combination of Straw Dogs and The Getaway with The Wild Bunch’s fuck-it-all philosophy. Compared with them, No Country is schematic and trite. It’s easy to accept the ending because it doesn’t require you to feel for anything of substance being destroyed. Llewellyn and Carla die off-screen and there’s no suffering, no deep fear or agony, no urgency. Late in the film, Bell converses with a wheelchair-bound ex-colleague, who delivers the film’s signature line: “You can’t stop what’s coming.” That would be death, of course. Yet the film has failed to supply the feeling to accompany the sentiment. Fate has been reduced to its message. Boiled right down: shit happens.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    5th/02/2008 to 3:40 pm

    When other people say, “Another Coen Bros movie!” I say, “Not another Coen Bros movie!” I’ve been off of them since O Brother, feeling like they were all form and no substance. Whatever they had to say as filmmakers, well, they said it all long ago. I know they can be entertaining, which is why I’m more inclined to see a comedy of theirs, should one come out. I have not seen this film, never intended to, and you have elucidated why.

  • Pat spoke:
    5th/02/2008 to 5:35 pm

    Thanks for a great review. I was also disappointed by “No Country for Old Men,” and your review perfectly articulates a lot of what I thought was missing. And with so many critics bestowing ecstatic critical hosannas upon this film, it’s nice to know I’m not the only one who isn’t quite sold on its specialness.

  • Rod spoke:
    5th/02/2008 to 9:41 pm

    This film really forced me to confront my ambivalent feeling towards the Coens. Growing up as a young film fan in the 90s, they were totemic figures. But they were never either committed individualists like Jim Jarmusch nor as radical or gritty in their post-modern chic as Tarantino. I think their best films – Miller’s Crossing, The Hudsucker Proxy – pushed towards an operatic level of irony-laden but real emotion, but this was finally rejected by audiences who instead embraced the amusing, sly Fargo – a film which, though well-made, doesn’t risk anything like their earlier movies do; it makes you giggle and wince but doesn’t make you think or feel shaken afterwards. No Country for Old Men extends their conceit and their problems. Yet it’s probably going to win Oscars and has been called the greatest film of 2007 by many respectable critics (though, tellingly, not three crtics I admire – Johnathan Rosenbaum, Stephanie Zachareck, and Dana Stevens). Indeed NCfOM’s cold poise is infinitely preferable to phony sentiment, and perhaps that’s why it’s the film du jour, the most implacable response possible to Bush-era pomposity.

  • Lady Wakasa spoke:
    5th/02/2008 to 10:05 pm

    Hey Rod – I’m actually getting to comment on a review…
    Put me down as one of those who found No Country a breath of fresh air, even embedded in that clutch of late 2007 films that signalled Hollywood might be getting its act together. As such, I’m going to respond to some of your comments, rather than explain myself. (And hopefully I don’t run over the character count.)
    First, I wouldn’t assign religious-spiritual connotations to Chigurh’s character – to me he represents plain fate and inevitability. (Just to get that out of the way.)
    So… I don’t think that Chirugh’s coin tosses are as “random” (sorry) as your review makes out. Chigurh eliminates anyone standing in the way of getting his job done – no one else (to his mind; there are still a lot of bodies in his wake). The woman in the trailer park office is spared mainly because she’s following her own philosophy and doesn’t back down, no matter how intimidating Chigurh may look. He can get the info elsewhere and she’s not a problem. The man in the gas station opens his mouth a bit too much and becomes a threat. Is he enough of a threat to eliminate? Not clear – so the coin decides. Carla Jean is an innocent, so fulfilling his promise to Moss has Chigurh a little off-kilter – thus out comes the coin. She falters (she tells Chigurh he doesn’t have to kill her, “like everybody else”), then she doesn’t play, and that clears up his doubts. He’s got no other indication he shouldn’t kill her because personal feelings about unfarness don’t enter the equation.
    The car crash, which in this chance-driven world is a random result that goes against him because of Carla Jean’s death, was purposefully unclear. He wasn’t dead, he was able to walk away with a bribe (which hints at the subtheme around money and corruption starting with the innocent) – but he definitely couldn’t go to a hospital, and the wound was beyond his ability to fix. Even with medical attention, his arm was weakened if not crippled. Bell made up the story about the farmer who was disabled while slaughtering cattle – but that’s just what happened to Chigurh. (There are a number of parallels like that in the movie.) Chance just may have caught up with him.
    I also thought that the movie contrasts Bell / Chigurh, with Moss acting as the (human) bridge between them. As such, and being human, Moss came out a pretty faulty hero. True, his act of altruism extended his life, otherwise the Mexicans or Chigurh would have found him by using the transponder. He was the only person who knew what Chigurh was who was able to slow him down; but he put his life and his wife’s life on the line because he was sure he can take all comers. Despite being a basically good person, and knowing full well the provenance of the money, he takes it. He does some things right, but slips up quite a bit. And if he hadn’t been chatting up the woman by the pool – although I don’t think much would have happened there – the Mexicans likely wouldn’t have gotten the drop on him. He was so busy being ballsy and cocksure that he slipped up one too many times.
    The one thing that I don’t really read in your review was the movie’s focus on Bell. Not that I don’t think you picked up on the false protagonist angle, etc.; but to a large degree the money, the drug deal, and even Moss and Chigurh were secondary thoughts. This was really the story of Bell’s evolution, the events that led him to his final “surrender.” That’s why the major deaths didn’t need to be on-screen; we’d more or less switched to Bell’s viewpoint at that point, and learned about them almost as he would have.
    That’s also why I wouldn’t quite describe this as a thriller; there was a different sort of progression going on. Moss was outmatched (and a bit full of himself), but he had to learn that. (The hard way.) Bell was giving up, but he had to get there.
    Another item: Chigurh’s shooting the people on “his side” – including the man who hired him – was strongly in keeping with his code. Adding more people to the hunt for the money (as well as to stop his spree) in his mind interrupts the element of chance that he represents. And he’s not going for the money for himself. This may show one weakness in the movie; the Coens may have not adequately captured / replaced parts of McCarthy’s story (not that he explains everything either). In the book (three bad words to use, but) he returned the money to the original owner (ostensibly the businessman who hires him’s boss) and offered his services. That was the continuation of Chigurh’s code that’s only hinted at in the movie, although I’m sure that there’s still enough there to indicate that he wasn’t in it for the money. It’s his job, and he does nothing well if not his job – because he obeyed his philosophy and followed where chance led him.
    As for the Bell-Chigurh “meeting” at the El Paso hotel… That one’s difficult, because it wasn’t clear what was going on. It looked like Chigurh was behind the door, but the door wasn’t built in a way for that to happen without Bell finding him. But keep in mind that there were two rooms that were taped off (locks blown out), and remember the whole chance / coin-toss theme, and I think that gives you the answer why Chigurh didn’t kill him. His philosophy wasn’t to kill people randomly – in the sense that he wasn’t randomly picking people off the street – and Bell came in, looked around a bit, and… stopped. Bell didn’t go into the other room (he was terrified to because he couldn’t match what might’ve been waiting for him). It became clear pretty quickly that Bell was no threat, so Chigurh didn’t kill him.
    And the ending… The first time I saw the film it left me with a “WTF?” hole inside (well, I also had a problem understanding TLJ’s summation). But that’s what it should do – there was no neat ending with this story, no warm cup of milk when you wake up from a nightmare. Things are dark and bleak and unresolvable; always have been, always will be.
    There are a couple of things you don’t really explain so I can’t address, but I found nothing stupid or superfluous. To me the Coens were very good at constructing a pretty airtight tale. That, for someone who sees movies for the story first, was one of the things I loved about the film – you can find explanations for pretty much everything that happens. Add that to the parallel structures (another good one: Chigurh says “hold still,” then Moss says “hold still”), the progression, and the inevitability of what you don’t think is going to happen, and the film looks to have some staying power.

  • soundtrackgeek spoke:
    6th/02/2008 to 12:56 am

    As much as I enjoyed No Country, it didn’t feel fresh and original to me. It felt like Fargo the 2008 edition. I know Fargo was great, but I want something fresh and original.
    Perhaps my expectations for this were a little over the top, which ruined th experience a little bit. Ultimately I enjoyed this movie, but I don’t think I will see it again.

  • Rod spoke:
    6th/02/2008 to 2:27 am

    Lady Dubya –
    You make some good points, but they ring hollow to me, because the film’s style is improper for a symbolic-poetic drama. If Bell is the centre of the story, why isn’t there more of him? Why does he only emit clichés and talk like a character out of the Coen Bros can? As it is, it is not his journey – it’s a weak epigram.
    Right, so, it’s not a thriller. Why then does it look like one? Why does it put in all the elements of a thriller and then pretentiously cop out of playing it through? Why place a ludicrous symbolic character in it and then betray the symbolising animating them?
    “First, I wouldn’t assign religious-spiritual connotations to Chigurh’s character – to me he represents plain fate and inevitability. (Just to get that out of the way.)”
    Let’s not get it out of the way. I feel the film could not decide if Chigurh represented plain fate or something more. It hints constantly at something more, especially with Bell’s final reckoning. You make some clever points about Chigurh’s methodology of death, but this actually merely sustains what I found most irritating about the film – that it’s a parlour game, playing with expectations and its own symbolic ideas, without delivering with its human drama. Chigurh is a symbol, not to be confused with a real human being – he struts about in black and puts people down without qualms. He may not be supposed to be a literal “Angel of Death”, but he is acting and looking like one. And yet here he is standing in the middle of a drama about chance and fate. The film is then fundamentally philosophically confused – it weighs both the possibility of ultimate evil and the absurdity of existence as equal ideas.
    Compare it to, say, Pulp Fiction, which is a carefully constructed a moral drama of fate and chance, where events accumulate, possibly with divine inspiration, or possibly through chance, or possibly through an accumulation of the former acting through the latter, to put Jules in the position of becoming a moral man and making his first, decisive action as such. The choices of NCfOM may be leading in an opposite direction, from hope to despair rather than the other way around – but the films are built around the same fundamental ideas. And Pulp Fiction is alive and pleasurable in a way this film isn’t.
    Moss, Bell, Chigurh, all empty vessels. I don’t give a shit about why Chigurh shoots someone in the head – I give a shit about the person Chigurh shoots in the head. There is no moral assignation on the part of the filmmakers to engage with what’s important – they can be satisfied with themselves for eluding clichés as thoroughly as Chigurh eludes punishment.
    An airtight tale? I agree, in the sense of hermetic. I don’t think so. I found both Moss’s and Chigurh’s actions after the gunfight thin and unconvincing. Where were all the cops after a gun battle erupted in the hotel and street? I didn’t believe it. The only one we’ve got is Mr Old Timey Symbol, muttering bromides in the background. Sure, Chigurh perceives he’s not a threat – but then he’s killed lots of people (the hotel clerk, the pair who take him to the site of the massacre) or were no more or less of a threat to him than Bell was. I feel there’s supposed to be some link between Bell’s being spared and his final pronouncements, but the film has nothing interesting to say about it, and nor does it give anything fundamentally interesting about the tripartite relationship of Bell, Moss, and Chigurh. There may be “parallels”, but why? What does the film have to say about why these men have similarities, but have ended up so different?
    Absolutely nothing, is the answer.
    “As for the Bell-Chigurh “meeting” at the El Paso hotel… That one’s difficult, because it wasn’t clear what was going on.”
    This is a problem. I found the filmmaking in the last third unnecessarily obtuse. Good filmmaking is only good filmmaking like good writing is good writing. No matter what the style coherence is everything.
    “But that’s what it should do – there was no neat ending with this story, no warm cup of milk when you wake up from a nightmare. Things are dark and bleak and unresolvable; always have been, always will be.”
    So what? I’ve seen this done before, and it’s something I refuse to celebrate. Not because I don’t think it should have been done, but how it was done. The structuring of the last act was awesomely superfluous. The Coens were fundamentally gutless in not showing Carla Jean’s death – it allowed them to maintain a kind of crisp, knowing, grim smile on its audience’s faces so the audience can congratulate themselves on how brilliant it all is that it doesn’t give you the normal ending of a thriller – without confronting them what it actually looks like.
    More importantly, what you mention that is missing from the film that was in the book indicates something I suspected – that there was more to this story than arrives eventually on the screen. Yes, I see from what you write that Chigurh’s code of honour plays out more fully there. So the film has failed badly in that aspect.
    But fundamentally I just didn’t enjoy it much – the thriller bits had me going, but ultimately is was an ordinary exercise. Film noir is and always has been a genre with a dark perspective on the collision between fate and morality. NcfOM is a fairly inert contribution.

  • Gromit spoke:
    6th/02/2008 to 12:02 pm

    I got nothing much out of No Country.
    I’m mostly in agreement with Rod, right up until the point where he loses all credibility by praising The Hudsucker Proxy (and dismissing most other Coens films).
    As for some of the comments, I can’t buy the notion that the boy who gives/sells his shirt represents innocence corrupted by money. First, the boy seems willing to help without the money. But more importantly, the boys have no idea who Chigurh is or what he has done. They are likely too much in shock at the accident and the injury to think about why this guy wants to clear out.
    Seems to me to be reading too much into things, like saying that the coin toss shows how money determines people’s fate. Now if we saw this kid later go out and buy a captive bolt pistol with the windfall, then …

  • Nayana Anthony spoke:
    6th/02/2008 to 12:38 pm

    Rod..
    You are a FANTASTIC writer. Really, really outstanding. Kudos.
    But I sooooo disagree with you. No Country knocked my socks off. So, for that matter, did Fargo. You said they lack poetry… I found poetry simply in the silence of both films; the feeling of empty wastelands. I’m not going to go deeply into the artistic/philosophical/literary reasons why I enjoyed this movie… I just did. It carried me away, and scared the crap out of me. And ditto on what Lady Wakasa said about the ending. I like the uncertainty.
    It does say something about this blog, that I enjoy reading your reviews this much even when I disagree with every word. Keep it up.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    6th/02/2008 to 1:38 pm

    Gromit – I should lose all credibility then, too, because I really think The Hudsucker Proxy is a vastly underrated film, and Fargo, largely due to an awesome performance by Frances McDormand, is a bit overrated. In addition, O Brother isn’t a cinematic achievemenrt, it’s a celebration of roots music.

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