“…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 a part of this world.’” – Sheriff Ed Tom Bell.
1980. A gas station somewhere in Texas. The station’s proprietor rings up a transaction and, taking a gander at the vast expanse of dry nothingness out the window, asks the customer in front of him if there’s any rain up his way – seeing as how he’s got Dallas plates on his vehicle. The customer’s expression is unreadable. He sighs as if there’s a job at hand and he withdraws a quarter from his pocket: “What’s the most you’ve ever lost on a coin toss?” And slowly, through the course of a clumsy and dreadful conversation, the proprietor begins to realize every day in the gas station, with every customer walking through the door, in every attempt at small talk, he’s been gambling with his life.
In 2007, Joel and Ethan Coen presented No Country for Old Men, which would earn the brothers their first Academy Award for best picture. (The Coens borrowed heavily and interfered little with their source material, Cormac McCarthy’s novel of the same name.) Though generally admired by critics, No Country would alienate viewers with its graphic violence, anger more than a few people with its abrupt ending, and forever baffle movie store employees trying to shelve it under a genre header. While Ethan Coen called it “the closest we’ll come to [making] an action movie,” action may be the last word that comes to mind when pondering the nature of No Country for Old Men. The film is a wink and nod to Sam Peckinpah with its blunt and joyful violence; the photography basks in the Southwest landscapes in a way that recalls John Ford’s beloved Monument Valley; fists will clench through the suspense; laughter is often, and often uncomfortable. Finally, a small, dark understanding from the viewer: this film is about me.
On the face of it, No Country for Old Men resembles the Coens’ earlier offerings of Fargo or Blood Simple. The brothers are deft manufacturers of the noirish kind of crime procedurals that center on the simple man caught up in vicious circumstances beyond his control. Here, our ordinary guy discovers two million dollars in a drug swap gone sideways. His decision to keep it and flee will set two men on his trail: a psychopath bent on recovering the stolen cash and an aging sheriff trying to make sense of the new type of crime creeping into his county. McCarthy’s novel offered the Coens a much more sobering and contemplative look at violence than previous films. Dark humor is present but does nothing to temper the grisly nature of the story the way it did in, say, Fargo. Violence is a silent partner in No Country, his capricious nature lending as much personality to the narrative as the three main actors.
Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) is a welder in the West Texas town of Sanderson when he stumbles across the leavings of a Mexican drug exchange while on a weekend hunting trip. Brolin plays Moss as a straight shooter; you get the feeling he’s the type of guy who does a job right the first time. Moss is no bumbler, but by the time the viewer meets him we’ve already seen two killings. Neither is he naïve: after all, he finds the money amongst shell casing and bloated bodies, so he’s seen firsthand the violence this business provokes. But like a lot of protagonists in the “everyman” noir genre, he’ll try to hedge his bets because he believes the possible payoff is worth the possible cost. He may reckon two tours in Vietnam and sturdy Texan genes will help him through the aftermath of poaching drug money, but we know he’s doomed the second he slaps eyes on the cash. Deep down, he might have the same inkling: “Things happen. I can’t take ‘em back,” he tells panicky wife, Carla Jean (Kelly MacDonald). Moss’s coin has been flipped. He’ll just have to decide how to call it.
Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem, more chigger than sugar) is tracking Moss, sent by a nebulous crime organization to retrieve the money before the Mexican cartel. We don’t learn Chigurh’s name until almost an hour into the film, but by then, we have all the information we need about him. Namely, he sports a chilling Prince Valiant haircut, doesn’t like to get his feet bloody, and prefers to kill folks by way of cattle bolt. One assumes he likes to keep things neat. In McCarthy’s work, he’s described in barest detail: his one defining characteristic is a lack of sense of humour. He’s a psychopath with warped ideas about fate, and the coin toss is a favourite trick of his. It’s a callous way to decide whether or not to take a man’s life, but Chigurh’s got a twisted code of honor. He believes the three separate paths of killer, victim, and coin have converged for a specific reason. Later in the film, Chigurh confronts a fixer named Wells (Woody Harrelson) who’s been sent to dispose of him – Chigurh’s body count is climbing and making his shadowy bosses uneasy. After he gets the drop on Wells, he mocks him, asking, “If the rule you followed led you to this, of what use was the rule?” Chigurh’s honest with himself in a way that most of the world around him is not – even the smallest actions of yourself and those around you can have the highest consequences. If you’re a part of society you must accept that.
Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) is Terrell County’s venerable lawman, drawn into the chaos surrounding by the drug massacre that’s landed within his jurisdiction. Tommy Lee Jones is one of those actors whose name and face should overshadow any role he plays, but there’s none of that here. Jones is a deep-in-the-heart-of-Texas native and his craggy face and homespun way of speaking inserts him seamlessly into the story. If the viewer identifies somewhat with Moss, and not-at-all with Chigurh, we are all in with Jones’ sheriff. He is the only character whose internal voice the viewer is privy to, in a plainspoken voice over at the beginning of the film. It’s Bell’s story really, more than it is Moss’s or Chigurh’s, and we sympathize with him by the end because it’s our story, too. Bell may be a participant in a cynical story about death and violence, but his feelings are shared by anyone who has ever felt left behind or overmatched by changing times. At the beginning of the film, Bell tells us that as a new deputy he knew police work was a job he had to be willing to die to do… but it is a sentiment he didn’t fully appreciate. It’s a decision he made as a young man, feeling indestructible and not having seen the things men are capable of. As an old man, he’s a parable: if you haven’t despaired of the world you live in, just wait.
By the end of the film, Moss is cornered by Chigurh. Having made no decision other than to keep the money for himself and his wife and run as long as he can, Chigurh calls it for him. He makes Moss a new proposition: give me the money and Carla Jean stays alive; keep it up and I’ll hold you both accountable for what you’ve done. Still, Moss refuses the two outcomes. His new plan to give Carla Jean the money and run is disastrous. He’s gunned down by the Mexican cartel men, a factor he hadn’t given much credence to since encountering Chigurh. Turns out another coin had been in the air all this time. Everyone is given an exit in the film, even if some are ambiguous (and since when has life provided resolution to all our outstanding questions?) Chigurh retrieves the drug money, and in a sweet irony (that reinforces his own beliefs about fate), is blindsided and grievously injured in a car accident, after killing Carla Jean. He walks away, perhaps to enter another small town the way he entered Bell’s, perhaps not. As for Bell, he has squared himself with his part in a violent world, and retired from the job to detach himself from at least part of it.
The Coens are fantastic world builders. As writers and directors they are masters at adding minute quirks that orient their characters. (The fact that Moss picks up his empty shell casings while hunting speaks volumes about his nature.) No Country for Old Men doesn’t feel like a period piece, probably because most of us are old enough to recognize the fashion and cars within the film, but the visual details in each scene are so suspiciously perfect, you wonder if the Coens used a time machine. The cinematographer was the Coens’ ace-in-the-hole Roger Deakins, an old hand when it comes to filmmaking. He makes the most of the location shooting (mostly dodgy motels and borderlands in Marfa, Texas and Las Vegas, New Mexico). The music and dialogue are sparsely used – long stretches of absolutely nothing, sometimes punctuated by carefully chosen words or a few music notes. The supporting cast is small, but strong, the standouts being Woody Harrelson and Garret Dillahunt, who plays Bell’s deputy, Wendell. Harrelson can’t quite get beyond his identity as well as Tommy Lee Jones is able to. He’s still Woody here, but that’s okay because his lines are few and the role calls for a certain cocksure quality Harrelson naturally provides. Dillahunt’s role is small, but important. Wendell is a reflection of Bell: he’s the young deputy Bell once was, more concerned with impressing “the old-timer” than with making sense of the violence around him.
When No Country for Old Men was released, critics were mostly positive, while audiences were mixed. For some, the film contained too much gore and violence. The contemplative tone was found boring and tedious. Others felt cheated when the criminal element of the film took back burner and didn’t answer the questions raised: Who took the drugs? Who does Chigurh work for? Where did the money really go? Perhaps, like the country its title alludes to, this film is not for everyone. Perhaps you have to have learned how raw a raw deal can be to appreciate the anguish of it. Most of those who had issues with the film were unsatisfied with the ending in which Sheriff Bell reveals a dream he’s had about his deceased father, also a lawman: “And in the dream I knew that he was goin’ on ahead and that he was fixin’ to make a fire somewhere out there in all that dark and all that cold, and I knew that whenever I got there he would be there. Out there up ahead.” And if you can see yourself in Bell, I’m willing to guess you’ve lost a few wagers yourself.