Javier Bardem and Josh Brolin in No Country for Old Men (2007)


(director/writer: Joel Coen/Ethan Coen; screenwriter: from a novel by Cormac McCarthy; cinematographer: Roger Deakins; editor: Joel Coen/Ethan Coen; music: Carter Burwell; cast: Josh Brolin (Llewelyn Moss), Tommy Lee Jones (Sheriff Ed Tom Bell), Javier Bardem (Anton Chigurh), Woody Harrelson (Carson Wells), Kelly MacDonald (Carla Jean Moss), Garret Dillahunt (Deputy Wendell), Tess Harper (Loretta Bell), Barry Corbin (Ellis), Stephen Root (Man Who Hires Wells); Runtime: 122; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Joel Coen/Ethan Coen/Scott Rudin; Miramax; 2007)
“Examines a soulless America that can’t live with or without violence.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A top of the line Coen brothers nihilistic chase film that examines a soulless America that can’t live with or without violence. It’s a film saturated with blood and gore, as it quietly in its sparse but witty dialogue ponders what’s gone wrong in the country where there are so many inexplicable ghastly brutal crimes and is so hung up on greed that it has lost its way in determining right from wrong. Joel and Ethan Coen (“Blood Simple”/”Miller’s Crossing”/”Fargo”) brilliantly adapt it from the evocatively pungent but minor 2005 novel by Cormac McCarthy (who borrowed the book’s title from Yeats), who won a Pulitzer for his post-apocalyptic The Road, leaving it as an uncompromised meditation on the breakdown of American society. If memory serves me right, it’s the brother’s first literary adaptation in their illustrious 23-year career in film.

It’s set in 1980 in West Texas (shot mostly in New Mexico, and somewhat in West Texas), along the border of Mexico. Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) is a stoical, world-weary, decent and honorable third-generation lawman, who is on the eve of retirement, and wistfully reflects that he’s older than his daddy ever was. He’s the film’s moral compass, who frets that he’s lost sight of the country he loves and no longer knows how to serve it effectively–feeling old and a stranger in a country his ancestors once brought law and order to. Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), looking every bit like the Marlboro Man, is a Vietnam vet and an unemployed blue-collar welder living in a trailer with his wife Carla Jean (Kelly MacDonald, Scottish actress in her American debut), who while on the week-end hunting antelope stumbles upon an open field where there’s just been a massacre: a number of dead bodies are on the ground with high-powered rifles beside them, a dead dog, a number of blood-splattered pickup trucks–one with many packages of heroin, and a critically wounded sole survivor in a truck asking in a faint whisper for aqua. A little further down the field there’s another dead body and a satchel beside him containing $2 million. Moss has come upon a drug deal gone sour and takes the money and runs home, but in the middle of the night the guilt-ridden man returns to the killing field with water. This is a big mistake because some drug runners spot him and he has to ditch his truck, and barely escapes their gunfire and an attacking dog. The wounded man returns home to get his wife out of harm’s way, as he has her visit her elderly mother in Odessa while he is armed to his teeth and takes off with the money alone. The drug lord hires a psychopathic hitman to retrieve the dirty money, Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), who has a page-boy haircut and uses an air gun that’s used in slaughterhouses to kill cattle to be his weapon of choice. We first see the strange looking and accented Anton in back of a police car handcuffed and the next thing we know he uses his handcuffs to choke-to-death a naive deputy in the stationhouse, who just said over the phone to the sheriff “I got it under control.” The lone serial killer then kills the motorist of the car he’s about to steal by asking him to step outside so he doesn’t bloody the interior, and then Chigurh tosses a coin to see if he should kill a convenience store owner or not.

The deadpan sick-humored but humorless (if that’s possible to be both!) Chigurh furiously trails Moss on a relentless chase through the desert terrain of the US-Mexican border area, while the sheriff and his dim-witted deputy (Garret Dillahunt) try to get to Moss, who is too dumb to realize he’s in over his head, before the crazed professional killer harms him. The drug boss also hires as added insurance, the egotistical bounty-hunter, Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson), who knows the peculiar Chigurh better than most, to get the money if he can before Chigurh gets it. With all these odd type of gunslinger characters in place, the bleak storyline becomes a blood-soaked trip through many senseless murders and it raises questions about what motivates all those involved in this desperate adventure to be doing something that can only be settled by violence. It’s an unanswerable question (the film has an unresolved ending, as it’s only interested in telling the story and not speculating on answers or even caring who ends up with the loot). It also has all the main characters stuck in a never ending cycle of being both hunter and hunted, sort of like the Buddhist’s Samsara (the cycle of reincarnation).

The photography of Roger Deakins does wonders for the dark spectacle the brothers lay before us, of a country overwhelmed by what it can’t understand and control. It has become the kind of place only a lunatic feels most at home. It’s where the decent folks (meaning those with a fundamentalist Christian background) can only scratch their head and wonder what catastrophe comes next. While the good old boys might have just lost a grip on their values and have become hopelessly subject to the whims of fate.

The dialogue is loaded with gems such as the following: At the initial crime scene the Deputy Sheriff Wendell says “It’s a mess, ain’t it?” Sheriff Bell replies “If it ain’t, it’ll do until the mess gets here.” Well, the mess has gotten here and we’re all in trouble because we don’t seem to know what to do about it, in this intense, well-crafted and well-acted film that is meant to be as disturbing as the amoral American landscape it depicts from back then in Reagan’s heyday. The other gem spoken has Bell’s uncle Ellis (Barry Corbin), a former deputy who was wounded on the job, remind his nephew that “this country will kill you in a minute and still people love it.”