West Texas, 1980: A hunter (Josh Brolin) stumbles upon numerous dead bodies, a stash of heroin, and $2 million in cash lying about in the region’s arid wasteland near the Rio Grande. He takes the money and runs, but is followed by a cold-blooded killer (Javier Bardem). All the while, the aging local sheriff (Tommy Lee Jones) tries to find both the hunter and the killer.
- Javier Bardem as the pathological killer Anton Chigurh. Although at first it may seem like Bardem has little to do – his enigmatic, humorless character basically has one expression throughout the whole film – it isn’t all that easy to be hair-raisingly creepy, especially when your character’s hairdo looks like one poorly washed cowlick.
- Joel Coen and Ethan Coen’s decision not to explain away Chigurh’s motivations or background. Is Chigurh after the money? Or is the money merely a pretext for him to satisfy his murderous instincts? How did he become that blood-thirsty? Was he abused by an alcoholic father? Or was he was forced to watch Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life every Christmas while growing up? We don’t know and that’s good. The mystery adds both to Chigurh’s otherworldly menace and to Bardem’s cryptic performance. (According to the DVD’s “Making Of” featurette, author Comarc McCarthy doesn’t dwell on Chigurh’s past either, basically describing him as someone lacking a sense of humor.)
- Tommy Lee Jones has some good moments, though I found his folksy sheriff considerably less sympathetic than he was supposed to be. Best of all is Jones’ last scene: the camera is on him as he describes a couple of dreams he had. Peace may be unattainable on this planet, but perhaps there’s hope in the afterlife.
- Despite all the talk in No Country for Old Men about the world changing for the worse and the corrupting confluence of money and drugs, the Coens (and perhaps McCarthy as well) make sure we understand that human evil and horrific acts of violence are hardly “new,” as an older local man reminds the befuddled sheriff later in the film.
- There’s no tidy, feel-good wrap-up. Evil remains out there in the world.
- I was unable to either relate to or care about any of the “good” characters. Josh Brolin’s Llewelyn Moss is supposed to be just an “ordinary guy” who acts the way ordinary guys would act under similar circumstances. Well, perhaps it’s true that ordinary guys are really, really stupid, selfish, and greedy, but there’s nothing ordinary about the skillful manner the Vietnam veteran uses his firearm to shoot both animals and his pursuer. Not helping matters, Llewelyn’s deadly foolhardiness – innocent bystanders get slaughtered because of him – had me rooting for Javier Bardem’s Chigurh to come and eliminate that tough-talking “ordinary” health hazard fast.
- The final battle between Chigurh and Llewelyn is never seen. That’s quite a letdown, considering that most of the film revolves around their cat-and-mouse game.
- Roger Deakins’ cinematography, though visually impressive in its brightly lit way, would have been more dramatically effective had it been shadier. As far as I’m concerned, No Country for Old Men is a horror fairy tale. Had it been treated as such – and that means having a more atmospheric look – it might have become an all-out horror classic.
- The suspense in No Country for Old Men isn’t of the edge-of-your-seat kind. Instead, it’s more like the sandbag-in-your-stomach kind, similar to what I felt while watching Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. Scenes of potentially explosive violence involving peripheral characters are gratuitously milked for minutes at a time.
- I’m not sure if the problem lay with me or Joel Coen and Ethan Coen’s screenplay (or Comarc McCarthy’s novel), but several plot points made absolutely no sense – e.g., I couldn’t figure out how characters could invariably discover where their targets were.
- I didn’t buy the film’s message that the world is a frightening place and there’s nothing that can be done about it, as it’s all in the hands of fate. That worldview reminded me of Woody Allen’s Match Point (a film I admire), in which fate is to be blamed for the outcome of each character – except that throughout it all, whether in Match Point or No Country for Old Men, human beings are the ones who get the ball rolling. In fact, in No Country for Old Men – with, at times, the Coens’ much-too-obvious assistance – they keep on kicking it.
- Javier Bardem winning the Best Supporting Actor Oscar, when he’s as much the film’s lead as Josh Brolin and Tommy Lee Jones. That’s cheating on real supporting players who have little chance of getting nominated (or winning) when competing with the big guys.
The Question Mark:
Was the fateful climax found in Pedro Almodóvar’s Broken Embraces inspired by the car crash near the end of No Country for Old Men? I’m not sure when Almodóvar wrote his film’s screenplay – or even if he’s ever watched No Country for Old Men, though it’s likely that he did. After all, at the time Javier Bardem was Penélope Cruz’s off-screen companion (they’ve gotten married since), and Cruz is one of the stars of Almodóvar’s film.
Also, Almodóvar directed Bardem in two films: High Heels (1991) and Live Flesh (1997). And (fate at work?) Bardem was born in the Canaries Islands, where the Broken Embraces crash takes place.
As much as I wanted to admire No Country for Old Men, I found it a well-crafted but uninvolving suspense thriller.
NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (2007). Dir.: Joel and Ethan Coen. Cast: Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin, Woody Harrelson, Kelly Macdonald, Garret Dillahunt, Tess Harper, Barry Corbin, Stephen Root. Scr.: Joel and Ethan Coen; from Cormac McCarthy’s novel.
Photos: Richard Foreman / Miramax Films.