Monday, February 21, 2011
The Best Picture Countdown #80: No Country For Old Men (2007)
Note: this post is modified from a previously published post
Director: Joel & Ethan Coen
Starring: Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin
No Country For Old Men is the best Coen brothers’ film since Fargo and, until A Serious Man and its tornado ending came along, probably their most divisive. You either love this movie or you hate it, the ending filling you with awe or leaving you scratching your head in frustration. I remember when I saw this in the theatre and the audience’s reaction to the ending varied between stunned silence and audible displeasure. This isn’t the kind of movie that works for the audience; it’s the kind of movie that makes the audience work for it.
The film 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 two characters are similar 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. Javier Bardem is the only actor from the film who earned an Oscar nomination (he, in fact, won 2007’s Best Supporting Actor prize), but Jones’ performance provides the force which steadies the story and keeps it grounded. Jones did receive a nomination that year for a different film which I suspect happened because people didn’t know how to categorize his performance here: it is clear to me that he is the film’s real protagonist, its central character, but since his screen time is more limited than that of co-stars Bardem and Josh Brolin, it might be difficult for some to consider him as the lead. This is only one of the many challenges that the film puts forward.
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, a sign that society is simply going awry. However, his brother points out to him that people have always done harm to others senselessly, that it isn’t just a sign of the times. This is why the ending is so meaningful and 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.
No Country For Old Men looks like a crime thriller but I think it’s really a western, a response to those westerns from the 60s and 70s that centred on the concept of the “dying west,” the wild west that is tamed by the coming of the railroads and society, leaving no room for the hero outlaws. Here the trope is reversed and instead we have a hero who is part of civilized society and is pushed out and set adrift by the breakdown of society into violence and chaos. Chigurgh 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, one that only seems richer and deeper on subsequent viewings. 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, creating something that is sure to stand the test of time, a film that will always be worth revisiting.