Movie Review: No Country for Old Men
By Matthew Huntley
November 21, 2007

I hope Al Gore doesn't see me.

No Country for Old Men is a film of such incalculable power it deserves its own course in film schools. Students could learn that a story's efficacy stems not from plot or trickery, but from characters' behavior. The people in this film behave not according to what's written in a screenplay, but to their essential natures. It seems incidental that a camera is filming them.

Like Cormac McCarthy's novel, the film cries out for detailed analysis, theory and open-ended discussion. I left the theater wanting to immediately talk about it, deconstruct it and watch it again one scene at at time. The filmmakers, Joel and Ethan Coen, provide no rationalization for what happens because they know it's what each individual makes of a movie that counts. One answer won't suffice.

This is another masterpiece from the Coen Brothers, whose best efforts deal with grave, serious subjects. They should know better to tell more stories like Blood Simple and less like O Brother Where Art Thou. Their comedies can be funny, but they're often misguided because they end up trying too hard to be clever. Not since Fargo, of which this film shares a similar air and tone,have the Coens made a film so profound, intense and deeply felt.

In a remote West Texas town, a large, brooding figure named Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) is arrested by a skinny deputy. At the sheriff's office, in a shot that uses depth of field to its most chilling effect, Chigurh strangles the deputy to death while displaying a look of uncompromising determination. This cannot be the first time Chigurh has murdered someone and it certainly won't be his last.

In a parallel time, Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) hunts antelope along the Rio Grande and comes across a band of murdered Mexicans. A heroin deal has gone terribly wrong and all but one of the Mexicans is dead. He pleas to Llewelyn to bring him some water but Llewelyn follows a blood trail to another dead man and a satchel full of $2 million.

Chigurh was obviously connected to this massacre and meant to receive the money. He begins to hunt Llewelyn down by any means necessary. His weapon of choice is a captive bolt pistol, which we know will play a large role the moment we see it.

Investigating the murders is an old-time sheriff named Ed Tom Bell, played by Tommy Lee Jones, who was perhaps the only choice for such a role. The character calls to mind Jones' other ventures into law enforcement after The Fugitive and The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. Bell can be considered a continuation of those two characters, only now he's slowly realizing his purpose in this small town is fading. In fact, the look on his face suggests he's uncertain he ever had any to begin with.

The film opens with a melancholy voiceover as Bell goes on about the different sheriffs from various Texas counties. He's like a grandfather whose thoughts and memories wander with each passing word.

As Bell searches for the truth, Chigurh and Llewelyn find themselves in a game of cat-and-mouse, chasing each other through small towns where the most exciting thing to happen is, well, two grown men battling for a bag full of cash. No one else seems to exist in these towns, and the deserted streets make for an open playground where Chigurh and Llewelyn can shoot each other at will.

The Coen Brothers' screenplay is simplistic and succinct in the way it reveals only what we need to know. There's nothing tricky or manipulative about it - no twists, bends or waves. It simply boils down to primal human nature. And boy, is it intense. It's violent, yes, but not pervasively so, and when it is, it is brutal, shocking and frightening.

Much of that comes from Chigurh operating with the mentality of a Terminator, and indeed there is a scene where Chigurh repairs himself like Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator. Chigurh's only mission is to recover the $2 million for a businessman (Stephen Root), who in turn hires the smart-alecky Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson) to recover the money from Chigurh.

The themes running through the film - greed, vengeance, old age, endurance - collectively induce us into an experience unlike any other we're used to in mainstream movies. The film is practical and carefully measured against the audiences' intelligence, and it's with great honor the Coen brothers believe in us so much. They want to share this film's insight rather than condescend.

The performances all hit the right note and although many people will be extending due praise to Jones and Bardem, I think it's Brolin who has the toughest role because he's asked to play more or less the straight guy - the everyday man whom everyone seeks out. Whereas Bardem and Jones play characters with distinct personalities that showcase wonderful moments of dialogue and acting, Brolin must respond to them without being overshadowed. He's not allowed to go over-the-top or speak solemnly like his counterparts. Notice his restraint when he tells a store owner that white socks are the only kind he wears. He's really kind of brilliant.

Many will compare this film to "Fargo," and it too has the same lonely, barren locations; the same offbeat moments of bizarre humor that may make you feel guilty for even thinking about laughing; and the same naive, selfish characters.

But there's also a similarity in theme. In Fargo the law and sense of order was memorably embodied by Francis McDormand, whose character was expecting a baby. She signified that even in a harsh, murderous world, people who find there's more to life than money are willing to bring children into it. In No Country for Old Men, it's another woman, Llewelyn's wife Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald), who's the voice of reason and morality. Like Francis McDormand, she has a magnificent speech at the end that proves she's not as naive as her husband thinks. She continues the Coen Brothers' theme of showing strong-willed women in male-dominated societies remain the most practical creatures of them all.

The men in these stories make things more complicated because they live with guarded fear, which is represented this time by the dream Bell describes to his wife (Tess Harper), who just looks at him amusingly while drinking coffee. No Country for Old Men is about men who realize their only means for existence is destroying themselves and others. They see this as inevitable.

But I believe I've only begun to scratch the surface about what this film means and how well-made it really is. No review can give it justice because a review is from a single person's point of view. This film should have an entire panel devoted to praising it. It's a film that unites us with its intelligence and through its characters' universal needs to wanting to be remembered after leaving this world.