Why I Love… #57: No Country For Old Men

Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin) finds himself in over his head
Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin) finds himself in over his head

Year: 2007

Directors: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen

Stars: Josh Brolin (Llewellyn Moss), Tommy Lee Jones (Sheriff Ed Tom Bell), Javier Bardem (Anton Chigurh), Kelly Macdonald (Carla Jean Moss), Woody Harrelson (Carson Wells), Garret Dillahunt (Wendell)

Genre: Crime Thriller / Literary Adaptation

It’s only been six years since the release of No Country For Old Men, but it’s easy to forget what a big deal this movie was at the time, especially for the Coen Brothers. Having fallen hard with their two previous films (2002’s patchy screwball romance Intolerable Cruelty and 2004’s difficult remake The Ladykillers), the feted duo took an unprecedented three-year hiatus – not at all long for most directors, but an eon for the prolific brothers – only to return with… an adaptation? 

The Coen Brothers’ cult name had been grown and sustained on their slick style, wit and originality. The best of modern movie magpies, they were known and loved for taking the best from cinema history and skewing it through their own particular wry sensibility and as their recent misfires had shown, were best when working with their own material. No Country For Old Men was not initially an obvious fit for them, let alone with an entirely untested cast. The Coens had shown admirable loyalty to a roster of great performers before, and whilst this movie’s headliners were hardly unknowns, their lack of familiarity in the Coens’ canon left another question mark hanging over this venture.

I admit my faith had been shaken. Just as well this movie was the equivalent of divine intervention.

Of course No Country For Old Men fitted the Coen Brothers like a glove. Cormac McCarthy’s bone-dry neo-Western harked back to the bag-full-o’-money troubles of Fargo and the sparse Texan noir of Blood Simple. This was the kind of hard-boiled crime thriller that they’d cut their teeth on already. Read McCarthy’s book (and then read all his other, better books) and you’ll be struck at just how minimal it is. The prose itself is like a screenplay. Punchy, lean and brutal. After the flailing comedy of The Ladykillers this was the perfect mean-spirited vehicle to re-establish them. The resulting movie was a resounding critical and commercial success, ultimately fending off big-hitters like There Will Be BloodThe Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and Zodiac come Oscar night to scoop Best Film, even if Joel and Ethan seemed typically aloof.

The cast couldn’t have been better, with career-best performances littering the top of the billing. Tommy Lee Jones’ weather-worn face and world-weary voice fit Sheriff Ed Tom Bell perfectly. It’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role now. He owns it. Josh Brolin makes opportunist hunter Llewellyn Moss the kind of underdog a crowd loves to root for, a chancer knowingly wading into danger, hoping the reward is worth the risk. Even Kelly Macdonald sounds flawless (to an admittedly untrained ear) relocating her strong Scottish accent to the Texan wastes.

And then of course there is Javier Bardem. At the time comparatively unknown, Bardem owns the film as Lego-haired hit man Anton Chigurh. Like evil incarnate he stalks the land, relentless and relentlessly curious. A frightening creation, larger than life, like The Judge from McCarthy’s ‘Blood Meridian’ (a book which continues to defy adaptation to film and would require one of the greats to command it). Bardem took home an Oscar too, and few men have so quietly commanded the screen in recent times. Even his Hannibal Lector-esque Bond baddie in Skyfall pales in comparison. If he gets typecast as the villain then this is the performance he’ll be measured against.

Chigurh’s existential mania, setting life and death on the toss of a coin, is emblematic of the film’s narrative as a whole, in which characters like Sheriff Ed Tom Bell and Llewellyn Moss see the future approaching down the road and do their best to make sense of their part in it. Sheriff Bell may not be able to see reason in it, but he still sees it coming down the road. Moss may know taking $2 million from a drug-deal-gone-bad will surely run him into the ground, yet he tries regardless to dodge the inevitable. In both cases Chigurh is the inevitable – the resigned belief that the worst is always yet to come and that every generation is a little more senseless than the one that came before it.

The trouble with kids today is that they’ll use a captive bolt pistol for all sorts of unsavoury things. In my day we knew what a captive bolt pistol was for.

No Country For Old Men offers further pleasures. A Coen Brothers film has never been this intensely quiet. Their regular collaborator Carter Burwell takes credit as composer as usual, but here he is relegated to subliminal drones and atonal sound stings. Prongs in the dark. Otherwise, the film exists without score, matching the vastness of the desert landscapes and the daunting moral hollows of McCarthy’s tale. An added bonus is that such quietude crafts tremendous suspense. The stretches of the film in which Moss flees from Chigurh are riveting, Those cavernous silences punctured only by the dull growl of car engines, the brief but crackling dialogue and bursts of brutal violence.

Such is the hook that No Country For Old Men now works like a trap. It’s one of those movies that, if found when channel-hopping, is almost impossible to leave. And when that momentum careers off of the rails in the decidedly un-Hollywood finale, the viewer is left in a hitherto unknown place; a scary world in which there is no happy ending and where success is measured by who loses the least. This was initially very disarming. I remember watching the film in the cinema and thinking to myself “it can’t end like this”. Part of the film’s genius is that, like it or not, it is going to end this way, and its going to ask you to deal with it.

Strikingly, No Country For Old Men remains an anomaly in the Coens’ career. Working with someone else’s source material, they somehow managed to hone their most unique-feeling work. Roger Deakins’ exemplary photography has a mood all of its own, so that though the bones of the story are typical thriller fare, the film feels less like a knowing homage to another. Perhaps it comes from the power of Cormac McCarthy’s writing – this is one of the most complete and accurate adaptations I’ve knowingly encountered – but this lack of reverie for movies past makes No Country feel like a fiercely contemporary film, despite being set in 1980.

The brothers are about to come back from another hiatus, this time following their most commercially successful film yet – 2010’s True Grit (another surprisingly triumphant adaptation). With typical contrariness they’re bouncing back with, of all things,  the biopic of a 60s folk musician. Not the sort of thing you’d anticipate will draw the same kind of crowds… But then again, the Coens have proven that it’s impossible to tell. They’re mavericks in the true sense of the word. Expect the unexpected. By my count they’ve made 6 maybe 7 nearly flawless films at this point. I wouldn’t bet against them making another…

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