This is easily the best Coen brothers film since Fargo. This is a bloody, suspenseful epic with an ending that will have people talking – you’ll either love it or hate it; it’s nature leaves little room to wander in between. In the audience with whom I saw this, reaction to the ending varied between silence and audible displeasure. It isn’t a movie that’s going to please everyone, but those who like it will really like it.
No Country For Old Men opens with a monologue by Sheriff Ed Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) which is reminiscent of the speech by Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) at the end of Fargo. The character of Ed is like Marge in a lot of ways – they’re both smart, level headed individuals with a keen eye for putting details together, and both have well-meaning deputies who are always this close to putting things together themselves, but ultimately require a little extra push. Like Marge, Ed has difficulty understanding the senselessness of what he sees. A lot has been made of the performance by Javier Bardem, whom I have little doubt will receive an Oscar nomination for this film. I hope that the Academy also recognizes Jones’ work in this film, because he’s the force that steadies the story and keeps it grounded.
The story itself can be easily summarized: In the middle of nowhere Llewelyn (Josh Brolin) stumbles across a drug transaction gone wrong and finds the money that about a half a dozen people have been killed over. After taking it home, he does something fundamentally stupid, which results in the people who want that money knowing who has it. The person who wants the money most is Anton Chigurh (Bardem), one of the cruellest and most relentless villains ever committed to film. Llewelyn goes on the run, with Chigurh coming every moment closer, while Sheriff Bell tries to put the pieces together to save Llewelyn and catch the killer. The relationship of Bell to Chigurh is the heart of the film. Chigurh is a brutal killer who leaves a trail of bodies in his wake. Wandering into the crime scenes Chigurh leaves behind, Bell is simply at a loss to explain how a human being can be like this. He comes to believe that it is a generational thing, that society is simply going awry. However, his brother points out to him that people have always done harm to others senselessly – it isn’t just a sign of the times. This is why the ending is appropriate – Bell is the old man for whom there is no country. The world to which he has always belonged (law enforcement) no longer makes sense to him and, leaving it, he realizes that he doesn’t know how to relate to the rest of the world either. The dream he describes at the end is the essence of what the rest of his life is going to be like – there’s nothing for him to do now but stay on the trail and catch up with his father in the hereafter.
This is a film that’s being described as a crime thriller, but I think it has a lot in common with the westerns that came out in the 60s and 70s that centre on the idea of the “dying west,” the wild west that’s tamed by the coming of railroads and society, and which leaves no room for the hero – only here the trope is reversed. Instead we get a hero who is part of civilized society and is pushed out and set adrift by the breakdown of that society into violence and chaos. Chigurh is the character representative of that chaos, a killer who believes that the lives he takes aren't taken as much by his hand as they are by the hand of fate. Twice he leaves the fate of potential victims to a coin toss. "This coin got here the same way I did," he explains. His last victim refuses to accept that and tries to force him to accept responsibility by refusing to call the toss. But, this isn't a man who can be reasoned with. This is a man who seems to think that if you happen to cross paths with him, then you were probably meant to die. And even though it will be by his hand, it is also ultimately out of his hands. And what is that kind of thinking if not chaotic?
This is an excellent film. The Coen brothers, who have been a little hit and miss with their output over the last decade, are at the top of their form and the entire cast is pitch perfect. The performance by Bardem is likely to be the thing people talk most about, but hopefully the quiet, solid performance by Jones will get some recognition, too.