No Country for Old Men (2007)


No Country for Old Men
Dir. Joel and Ethan Coen
Premiered at Cannes May 19, 2007

In 2007, Joel and Ethan Coen were has-beens. Their last two films, Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers, were rejected by critics as uncharacteristically low-brow, and the film that preceded them, 2001’s The Man Who Wasn’t There, was uncommercial and little-seen. They’d been through this before; in the mid-nineties, when Barton Fink and The Hudsucker Proxy underwhelmed. But then they made Fargo. And this time, they made No Country for Old Men.

Despite the ebb and flow of their filmmaking career, the Coens have largely stuck to the same themes of greed and hubris, absurdist humor, and artistic flair, with audiences changing their tastes. No Country for Old Men is no exception, and manages to be even more fitting than usual. Based on the book by Cormac McCarthy, No Country for Old Men manages to make horrific violence comforting. This is the film which, out of all of 2007’s bounty, won Best Picture. And while I may not agree with the Academy on that front, it’s hardly an objectionable choice.

While hunting in the vast prairies of 1980 West Texas, out-of-work Vietnam veteran Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin) comes across the abandoned remains of an exceptionally bloody shootout between Mexican drug gangs. Nearby, he finds a case containing $2 million in cash. What Moss doesn’t realize is that a tracking device is hidden in the money, making him the target of not only the cartels, but Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), a ghostly, psychotic, and endlessly capable assassin with a bizarre, alien code of conduct. Hot on the trail of both Moss and Chigurh is long-in-the-tooth sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), a sharp-witted and incorruptible moralist whose newest chase leads him to wonder if the world is devolving into chaos before him.

But it isn’t. Yes, No Country for Old Men is easily the Coens’ bloodiest film, with a body count far eclipsing Miller’s Crossing. Yes, it may have in Anton Chigurh the most unambiguous depiction of pure evil in any of their films (even John Goodman in Barton Fink began as his charming old self, while Bardem as Chigurh is even creepier than his Bond villain Silva). And yes, the film happens to take place during a historical period that saw an actual, environmentally-influenced global crime wave. But despite the crowing of those whose courage has left them in old age, there has always been evil in the world, and while it is right to fight back, one should not be fooled into thinking there will be a final victory.

Despite a longish runtime and startling scarcity of dialogue– I wouldn’t be surprised if this 122-minute film came from a 40-page script– the film is suspensefully-paced, gloriously shot, and not without the Coens’ trademark humor, like when a bloodied Moss wakes up on a Juarez stoop to a serenade by an oblivious mariachi band. But in an era that saw all that our nation knew and loved called into question, it took the twisted minds of Joel and Ethan to assuage that fear with the understanding that life has always been nasty, brutish, and short. This country’s hard on people. You can’t stop what’s coming.

Signs This Was Made in 2007
It’s a film about the impossibility of defeating the dark side of human nature, with Bell repeatedly saying “it’s just an all-out war.” In the film, it was a war on crime; in our world, it was a War on Terror.

How Did It Do?
I feel comfortable saying that No Country for Old Men should have won the Palme D’Or instead of 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and  2 Days. It got rave reviews at Cannes, but went home empty handed for the time being.

However, upon wide release in November, it received a 93% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes, grossed $171.6 million against a $25 million budget (making it the Coens’ most financially successful film up to that point, later surpassed by 2010’s True Grit), was nominated for seven Academy Awards, and won four– Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor for Javier Bardem (whose ladies’ man persona would never be quite the same), Best Director, and Best Picture. We can now safely look back and say No Country for Old Men was the point beyond which Hollywood was content to let the Coens do whatever they wanted.

Next Time: Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End


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