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Saturday, March 25, 2017

21st Century Essentials: No Country For Old Men (2007)

Director: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen
Starring: Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem
Country: United States

Most artists are lucky if they create one bona fide masterpiece - such things are special precisely because they are rare. Having made both Fargo and No Country For Old Men, Joel and Ethan Coen have made two (one might even argue that they've made three, including Blood Simple). An instantly iconic film, thanks in part to Javier Bardem's villain, Anton Chigurh, the most dangerous person ever to sport a Dorothy Hamill haircut, No Country For Old Men was one of the most hyped movies of 2007 and would become the Coen brother's most successful film at the box office (until being supplanted in 2010 by True Grit) and be nominated for 8 Oscars, winning 4 (including Best Picture). That's not always a recipe for longevity - plenty of movies have raked in the money and won Oscars only to be forgotten afterwards, and if anything a lot of hype tends to hurt a movie in the long run as it sets expectations impossibly high, but No Country For Old Men is a film that can withstand that kind of pressure. It's the real deal, a film that continues to mesmerize after a decade and multiple viewings.

Put simply, No Country For Old Men is the story of a man who stumbles into something he has no business being involved in and mistakes being in the wrong place at the wrong time for being in the right place at the right time. The man is Llewelyn (Josh Brolin), who is hunting in the desert when he comes across the aftermath of a drug deal that has gone sideways. Everyone is either dead or dying and there's a briefcase, just sitting there, with two million dollars in cash in it. He decides to roll the dice and take the briefcase, which puts Chigurh on his trail after he's hired to recover the money, which has a tracking device hidden in it. Chigurh's path is not a clean one, he leaves a trail of bodies behind him, and both he and Llewelyn will be sought after by Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), who hopes to find Llewelyn before Chigurh does and hopes to find Chigurh before he can do any more damage.

From a storytelling perspective, No Country For Old Men is sort of an odd tale insofar as it denies the viewer a lot of satisfaction. A major death occurs off-screen, destabilizing the narrative by removing the character who up until to that point plays the most active role in the plot. Because of this, several critics at the time responded negatively to the film, citing the absence of a climax and lack of a central character. While you could argue that No Country does not have a climax in the traditional sense, I think that it does have a climax and that that occurs in the scene where Ed Tom returns to the motel room and finds the lock blown out, unaware as he's examining the room that Chigurh is also there, hidden and watching him. There's no confrontation - for whatever reason, Chigurh, who does not shy away from killing people, does not make a move on Ed Tom - but I would argue that it's the scene which contains the most tension and that the story's denouement, in which Chigurh completes his task and disappears and Ed Tom retires and disappears in his own way, can only happen as a result the fact that Ed Tom does not actually meet Chigurh. As for not having a central character, I've always found that accusation somewhat silly as it's always been clear to me that Ed Tom, whose narration opens and closes the film and who is the character who undergoes a change (from comfortable and assured in his work to being baffled by the senselessness of the violence he's encountered) as a result of the events of the film, is the main character. This is Ed Tom's story, through and through, though the film doesn't necessarily make it easy to see that.

But it's that confusion, that sense that you could probably make an argument for any of Ed Tom, Lleweyln, or Chigurh as the main character, that makes No Country such a thought-provoking film. There's no shortage of ways in which the film throws the audience and upends expectations, and the film's sense of ambiguity is ingrained right down to the genre. It looks like a crime thriller, but it functions essentially as a mirror image of the westerns of the late 60s and early 70s that turned on the idea of the "dying west." In those films an anti-hero takes on a task against the backdrop of the wild west being tamed by the coming of society, sometimes characterized by the building of a railroad. When the anti-hero completes his task, he's forced out to the shrinking fringes of the world because he's unsuitable to live in polite society. In the reversal that No Country presents, you have Ed Tom, a fundamentally good man who is a comfortable part of civilized society but who 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 by his hand so much as they are by the randomness of chance, who is as relentless ("you can't stop what's coming") as the industrial progress that brought on the railroads. Unlike the anti-heroes of those earlier westerns, Ed Tom does not succeed in his task; not only does he not bring Chigurh to justice, he never even comes face to face with him for a showdown. Denied even the satisfaction of dying the noble death granted to the cowboys who receive a mortal injury while defeating their foe, Ed Tom simply retires, pushed out of the world that he no longer understands because it's been destabilized by Chigurh (a development foreshadowed by the film's opening monologue, which ends with Ed Tom stating, "I always knew you had to be willing to die to even do this job. But, I don't want to push my chips forward and go out and meet something I don't understand. A man would have to put his soul at hazard. He'd have to say, 'Okay, I'll be part of this world.'" In the end, he's not going to agree to be part of this world). Everything is backwards: the good man does not emerge victorious and the bad man not only gets away, but gets to recreate the world in his image, tearing away the civilizing elements and making it a "wild" free-for-all again.

This deft genre work has always been a source of fascination for me about No Country, but it's also an interesting film for how it presents a counter-point to Fargo, in that Ed Tom and Fargo's Marge Gunderson are rather similar characters. Not only are both police officers, but they're both beacons of competence outfitted with a keen common sense that's so deep-seated it feels casual, their natural capabilities easily contrasted with their somewhat goofy, Barney Fife-like partners (Deputy Wendell and Lou, respectively). Both also demonstrate their ability to quickly process the elements of a crime scene and deduce how things went down, with their assessments being spot on. Ed Tom and Marge are cut from the same cloth, but the difference between them is in the outlook of their respective films. Both No Country and Fargo are violent films, but the latter ends on a peaceful note. Marge may not understand why other people could be driven to such savage acts, but all the villains are at least captured (or, in the case of Steve Buscemi's character, taken out of commission), and the film's final scene shows Marge in happy circumstances, giving gentle encouragement to her husband and awaiting the birth of their child. No Country ends on a note of despair, with several innocents having been killed, the badest of the bad guys walking away, and the film's final scene finds Ed Tom talking to his wife, describing a dream he had in which he expresses a longing for the past when things could be better understood. Ultimately No Country offers a much darker view than Fargo and one which is downright nihilistic, but there's no doubt that it's a tour de force. As unrelentingly bleak as it might be, this is one of the defining films of its time and of the Coen brothers as artists. No discussion of the century's best films would be complete without No Country For Old Men.

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