Well, folks, our Oscar review extravaganza continues this week with a look at the Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men. Like There Will Be Blood, a lot has already been written about this violent little genre film, but I really think it’s so good as to merit a little more discussion, and I’m especially interested to hear what anyone else thinks of the film.
To me, though, this is the easily the Coens’ best film, and maybe my favorite movie this year.To begin with, though, lets talk a bit about Joel and Ethan Coen. The famed and critically respected brothers have been making their own, often strange, films together since Blood Simple in 1984. Like Paul Thomas Anderson, they’ve been lucky enough to maintain independent financing for the most part, and so are free to do pretty much whatever they want (Intolerable Cruelty being, to my knowledge, the main exception), which is good because I can’t imagine a studio letting them make their kind of films. They have a strange sense of humor, an unusual visual flare, and a penchant for shocking bits of violence.
And, because their films are so much in their own universe, they are also pretty divisive. I know more than a few die-hard Coen brothers fans who have seen The Man Who Wasn’t There a dozen times, and I know more than a few Coen haters who refuse to see their films except as ammo with which to battle their defenders. Call me a casual Coens fan. I’ve never seen The Man Who Wasn’t There, I was put off by the whimsy of The Hudsucker Proxy, but I liked Barton Fink, really liked Raising Arizona (“And when there was no crawdad to be found, we ate sand.” “You ate what?” “We ate sand.”), and I did, once, dress up as the Dude from The Big Lebowski for Halloween (although, in the interest of full disclosure, it was also just a good excuse to wear pajama pants to work).
They’ve made lots of other films, but the other big one is Fargo. It’s a great movie. I can see exactly why, right down to the now-famous exchange between Francis McDormand (Joel’s wife) and an old friend from high school on which the whole movie turns. I just don’t like it that much. Can’t point to what, exactly, turns me off about it, but it’s not on my DVD shelf, and I haven’t felt the need to revisit it. Commenters, feel free to let me have it for that one (no Boogie Nights defenders from last week’s column?).
All this is just a way of letting you know what my baggage is going in. There are certainly friends of mine whose recommendations on Coen brothers films I take with a grain of salt, just because I know they’re predisposed to liking them (and while I love Manhola Dargis at the New York Times and think she’s a wonderful writer, heed her glowing reviews of David Lynch films at your own peril). So when I tell you that No Country for Old Men is the best Coen brothers movie I’ve ever seen, you’ve got some idea where I’m coming from.
But even that statement requires a little qualification, because, as the title of this review suggests, No Country isn’t for everyone. In fact, with great regret, I told my father not long after I saw it that it was a great movie, that there was much about it that he would enjoy, but that it was too violent for him. That’s a shame, because there’s much in this film to be appreciated by older, more sophisticated audiences. The story follows Llewelyn Moss (a terrific Josh Brolin), a small town nobody who finds a bag full of money at a drug deal gone bad and attempts to keep it from the man hired to get it back, Anton Chigurh (Supporting Actor lock Javier Bardem). On their trail is an elderly sheriff, Ed Tom Bell, played by Tommy Lee Jones, who mostly bears witness to Anton’s brutal tactics and Llewelyn’s clever retaliations.
It is from Jones’s Bell that the film takes it’s title and theme, that the world has changed and the older generation being replaced finds the new one’s greed and violence inexplicable. And it is for this reason that the film’s violence is not just necessary but integral to its message. This, to me, is what separates No Country from other Coen brothers films, especially Fargo, where that final woodchipper scene feels intended to shock more the illuminate a grander theme.
The performances are roundly terrific. Between this and American Gangster, James Brolin has had as much a breakout year as Casey Affleck. His Llewelyn is easily criticized for his refusal to give up the money, even though it endangers his wife, Carla Jean, and numerous others, but he finds himself in the position he’s in because his conscience drives him to do something kind (to elaborate more might spoil one of the film’s best moments). His concern for Carla Jean is genuine, and he does everything in his power to keep her safe, except, of course, turning the money in to the police. In short, he’s human.
The same might not be said for Bardem’s Anton Chigurh. He is a ruthless sociopath, and will gladly gamble the life of a stranger on the flip of a coin. Bardem betrays very little emotion in the part, yet makes him both compelling and terrifying. The Coens wisely leave much of his part of the story to our imaginations. It is never clear, for instance, who has hired Chigurh or how he came to his chosen profession, and our imaginations fill in those holes with answers much scarier than anything Joel and Ethan (or Cormac McCarthy, on whose novel the film is based) could have conceived.
But the soul of the film belongs to Jones’s Sheriff Bell. As I said earlier, he contributes little to the action of the film, but acts more as a Greek chorus, and we share his sadness at what the world he inhabits has become. Jones is magnificent in the role, with his deeply lined face and world-weary eyes conveying far more than his sparse dialogue. I haven’t see In the Valley of Elah, for which Jones received his third Oscar nomination this year (and first for Best Actor), but I’m hard pressed to imagine it being better than his work here. There has been some talk that Jones’s final scene in No Country is bafflingly elusive and brings the film down. I found it heartbreaking and a perfect fit with what the Coens are trying to say. I left the theatre in a daze, with the film as a whole and that scene in particular hanging over me for two or three days.
A really great film sticks to your ribs, you might say, and No Country certainly had that effect on me.
Which brings us back to the Coens. I’m not sure anyone else could have made this film so well. It’s as though twenty years of being free to make their own choices led them to this moment, giving them the courage to make just the right bold choices for the film (there is, for example, almost no soundtrack to the film, which heightens the tension of some scenes to a fever pitch), and to tell their story with just the right pacing and visual panache. Of course, they were aided by the brilliant Roger Deakins, who is competing against his own work in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford for the Best Cinematography Oscar in what can only be described as a banner year for the famed DP and longtime Coen collaborator. The visual style of the film is perfect; beautiful, nuanced, but unobtrusive. The camerawork heightens the tension brilliantly at times, while at others lingers over the Southwestern landscape like a poem, without ever calling attention to itself.
Despite the violence, No Country for Old Men is pretty much the front runner for Best Picture, having recently taken the Producer’s Guild Award, among others. Will it win? I think so. The Departed‘s win last year demonstrates that the Academy is not immediately put off by violence, and while the Coen’s don’t exactly carry Scorcese’s weight, they’ve been around long enough and have enough admirers that there could be a sense that they’re due. If they do take home the gold statue, I won’t argue a bit.