Two master filmmakers working at the height of their skills, fronting a cast who perfectly nails each of their roles. What more could you want?
Should I see it?
Yes (with cautions)
Writers/Directors: Ethan and Joel Coen
Starring: Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, Tommy Lee Jones, Kelly Macdonald and Woody Harrelson
Rated R for strong graphic violence and language
The Coen Brothers are two of the best filmmakers of their generation. Each of their films is a unique experience, and even the duds (The Ladykillers, Intolerable Cruelty, The Hudsucker Proxy) still have moments and characters to recommend seeing them at least once. When one of their better works hit, it often far exceeds anything being made by their contemporaries. Regarding their better works, it is usually when they are dealing with simple people coping with a problem that often revolves around a crime (Raising Arizona, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou?). It is with these ordinary folk that the Coen’s are comfortable, and are free to fully explore their cinematic voices. They are also able to utilize these common men and women to expound on greater themes of morality, identity and modern masculinity.
No Country for Old Men revolves around Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), a gruff welder who stumbles across the results of a drug deal that has gone bad in the desert. From this, he discovers a case containing two million dollars. He takes it home to his wife Carla Jean (Kelly MacDonald). It isn’t long before the menacing killer Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem, in an Oscar-winning performance) arrives in the region, looking to regain the lost loot. Chigurh, with a devil’s smile, and a patient, frightening tone, tracks Moss across Texas. The slow chase has the feeling of watching a man being tracked by death itself. Chigurh has an unnatural vibe of impending doom. For those familiar with Raising Arizona, Chigurh may seem like a serious turn at that film’s hitman Leonard Smalls.
Trailing both men, crusty sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) struggles to make sense out of the nonsensical deaths left in their wake. Bell’s career, and ultimately his life, are coming to a close. He can see the finish line. As he navigates through the crime scenes, he is left pondering the use of his life’s work and the meaning of existence itself. Chigurh’s hunt of Moss is a fascinating bit of storytelling. However, it is Bell’s coping with the aftermath of Moss being chased by his doom that gives the film a deeper existential tone, which sets up the unsteady ending that confuses many audiences (more on that below).
This is one of the best character pieces made in recent memory. It is a rare thing to be presented with characters so intensely interesting that there’s a sense of loss when long scenes of dialog end. I wanted to see more about these people, learn more about them. This careful character development makes the confrontations more tense since the audience is involved on both ends of the fight. When Moss and Chigurh finally meet and fight, I found myself hoping for a draw so the film could continue. I can’t think of the last time this has happened.
This is a smart, enthralling film that I cannot recommend highly enough. You have two master filmmakers at the height of their skills working with a cast that meets the high expectations of a brilliant script. What more could you ask for?
This is a violent movie. Chigurh is a study of evil. This sanguine film doesn’t push the gore to an unreasonable level, but it is violent. The violence, while quite rough, is handled with respect. For those who are sensitive to seeing violent images, be forewarned, this film is loaded with brutal killings.
The film is a search for structure and meaning in a seemingly random world. Two of the main characters, Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, and Anton Chigurh struggle with meaning in different ways. Bell tries to think his way to an explanation. He sees the results of men’s dark hearts and the disconnected path of violence. Confronted with this, Bell attempts to see things through reason. He fails and ultimately gives up the cause by saying,
“I always figured when I got older, God would sorta come into my life somehow. And he didn’t. I don’t blame him. If I was him I would have the same opinion of me that he does.”
Chigurh is a remorseless grim reaper, slowly but surely coming to claim each soul. However, we come to find that he too is lost in this meaningless world of death. Casually peddling death seems to be a way for him to define certainty in a strange way. In the film’s best scene, Chigurh confronts a dim-eyed shop owner and orders the man call a flipped coin. If the man wins, he lives, if he loses, Chigurh will kill him. Chigurh on the 1958 coin’s path:
“It’s been traveling twenty-two years to get here. And now it’s here. And it’s either heads or tails. And you have to say. Call it.”
The coin, fate, decides the outcome to this man’s life, not Chigurh. He never makes the jump that it is his choice to kill. He doesn’t recognize that it is not fate, but rather his choice to flip the coin in the first place, which defines him. Fate may put him in the situation, but his reaction, his free will, is the key. At the end of the film, Carla Jean confronts Chigurh face to face. Chigurh, following his ritual, allows her the flip of a coin to decide her fate.
Carla Jean Moss: You don’t have to do this.
Anton Chigurh: [smiles] People always say the same thing.
Carla Jean Moss: What do they say?
Anton Chigurh: They say, “You don’t have to do this.”
Carla Jean Moss: You don’t.
Anton Chigurh: Okay.
[Chigurh flips a coin and covers it with his hand] Anton Chigurh: This is the best I can do. Call it.
Carla Jean Moss: I knowed you was crazy when I saw you sitting there. I knowed exactly what was in store for me.
Anton Chigurh: Call it.
Carla Jean Moss: No. I ain’t gonna call it.
Anton Chigurh: Call it.
Carla Jean Moss: The coin don’t have no say. It’s just you.
Anton Chigurh: Well, I got here the same way the coin did.
Carla Jean demands that Chigurh acknowledges his free will, his culpability in her murder, and thus in all of his murders. He can’t make the leap. If he admits his actions are of his own making, he is guilty. He becomes an active player in the world and he is no longer some random device. Earlier in the film he refers to himself as a “perfect tool for the job”, the job being killing other people. Chigurh finds his heels stuck in the swamp of a completely fate based world. If man is directed completely by fate, then he is nothing more than a tool, a mere function. With free will, choice, man ignites the sometimes terrible consequences of randomness in the world, but he can also be judged for his decisions.