no-country-for-old-men, Photograph by Tom Francis, Creative Commons 2.0
By Will Rees-Young
28th September 2021
No Country For Old Men: Review
The Coen Brothers’ adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel No Country for Old Men has become a modern classic, filled with phenomenal characters, intense sequences and iconic moments. However, where this acclaimed film succeeds most is in its ability to pull its audience into the story itself, forcing us to put together the small crumbs of its plot by establishing character details. No Country for Old Men is full of vast character development and plot expansion with very little dialogue, pushing the audience into filling in the gaps of what seems to many a surface level Neo-Western. However, with some focus, Joel and Ethan Coen’s dramatic breakaway from conventional story telling has left us with an experience that is challenging, surprising and meaningful.
No Country for Old Men uses human morality as a basis from which its three major characters are created, making them far more compelling as a result. The introduction of Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), a hitman with an evil code of ethics driving him to kill without remorse, as his every is less about those he kills but rather about securing his objective. However, with a complex moral compass, Chigurh will kill outside of his job, for example in the iconic coin toss scene, where the flip of a coin decides the fate of a man who mildly irritated the hitman. Often cited as one of the best portrayals of a psychopath, Bardem delivers an incredible performance as a true personification of death. In a film filled with silence, any noise from Chigurh brings about an intense feeling of dread, often resulting in dire consequences.
The victim of such consequences is Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin). Stumbling across a drug deal gone wrong, Llewelyn’s opportunistic nature is revealed when he takes a bag containing a large sum of money. Unlike Chigurh, Llewelyn is not a bad person and doesn’t want to see anyone hurt by his actions. He lets Chigurh come to confrontation with other pursuers in the interest of his own survival, and people die so that he can keep his monetary gain, which he clings to in hope of a future for him and his wife Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald). The morally ambiguous nature of Moss even places his own life in mortal peril for this hope, but it is that which leads to his own destruction when Chigurh finally tracks him down and kills him.
What's more, we see the consequence through the eyes of Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), who is rapidly approaching retirement after a long vocation of catching criminals. He's worn out by the struggle that is consistently present in his line of work, yet he can't resist the feeling that his work is incomplete. Through Bell we can understand for certain the goodness of humanity. Most significantly we can see through Bell that being good requires work and penance, and it's a task that will destroy any individual after a long period of trying over the cruel nature of humankind. The Sheriff spends the film reflecting on the past and how people would manage the wrongs of the present day, yet he can only ever arrive at the realisation that there was never any change in humanity’s evil nature, but simply a change in the reaction of the good that would combat it.
These three characters pull together what is a masterful piece of filmmaking. The Coen Brothers’ departure from typical film-making techniques brings us what is, in essence, much closer to a silent movie than a modern western. However, in a film with no soundtrack and limited dialogue, some of the most intense sequences in movie history are created, especially one nearing the end, where Llewelyn is confronted with the shadow of Anton Chigurh. Even without seeing the man, chills are sent down the audience’s spine as Moss tries to survive the shadowy hitman’s rain of bullets. Every sound is delicately chosen here to drive this story and similarly, due to lack of dialogue, the smallest character details bring out so much more than we expect. From Llewelyn’s reaction to finding a survivor from the drug deal, asking for the “last man standing”, to Chigurh’s annoyance over mundane questions, we can see who these characters really are, without being told, which seems a to be a missing art in modern filmmaking. But don’t let the overwhelming silence of this film fool you! When there is dialogue you can expect some brilliant exchanges between Javier Bardem’s Chigurh and others, and a couple of fantastic monologues at either end of the film from Tommy Lee Jones’ Bell. Both these aspects are masterfully played with by the Coen Brothers to bring out career defining performances from the central three actors.
The bleak note that the Coen’s leave us with is again demonstrative of the diversion No Country for Old Men takes from the traditional tropes of storytelling. Chigurh escapes, Llewelyn and Carla Jean are murdered, and Bell retires, unable to fulfil his sense of incompleteness. Ultimately Bell can do nothing to bring Chigurh’s victims back and Chigurh himself is able to evade justice. Chigurh triumphs over Bell as evil triumphs over good. The good nature of Bell and his humanity have been worn down after years on the front lines. All we are left to ponder over is a lingering hope that the future will take arms against the evil of the world, Just as Sheriff Bell pondered about the past. But what is abundantly clear in our future, is that No Country for Old Men will live on as a classic and in my opinion, the Coen Brother’s finest directorial work.