No Country For Old Men


When I read Cormac McCarthy’s spare and elegant novel of horrific violence, No Country For Old Men, I was aware that the Coen Brothers were adapting and directing a film version. Therefore, when I got to the end and, well, I don’t want to even hint at a spoiler, I wondered how they were going to change it to satisfy filmgoers. It turns out they didn’t, and the result is one of the most faithful film adaptations I’ve ever seen of a novel. It will certainly baffle and annoy many in the audience, but a part of me is very glad they didn’t mess with it.

McCarthy wrote a book about the nature of evil by using a very familiar plot device: a character finds a suitcase full of money, decides to keep it, and there is hell to pay. In this instance it is Josh Brolin as Llewellyn Moss, who while hunting antelope in the wasteland of west Texas finds a grisly scene: some pickup trucks and several dead bodies. One of the trucks contains a huge shipment of heroin, but Brolin is more interested in a satchel full of hundred-dollar bills.

Brolin then does something pretty stupid, and even he knows it’s stupid, but he won’t be able to live with himself if doesn’t do it. His actions end up making him the target of a variety of people wanting to get the money back, none so deadly as Anton Chigurh, a man of indeterminate ethnicity and a haircut that recalls Mike Nesmith’s days as a Monkee. Chigurh, played to chilling perfection by Javier Bardem, is evil through and through, but he has a code of ethics in the way he dispatches his victims. In one early scene, he is annoyed by a salesclerk in a gas station. He flips a coin and asks the man to call it. It is clear that if the man loses the call, Chigurh will kill him, though the man doesn’t realize how his entire fate rests on a fifty-fifty chance.

Chigurh is something more than human. He is referred to at one point as a ghost, though he does bleed. In one scene he calmly goes about treating himself for shotgun wounds, after first pilfering Lidocaine from a pharmacy. The film is set in 1980, and a minor character mentions that times are changing for the worst. He calls it the “dismal tide,” but cites as examples kids with green hair and bones through their noses. That’s kid stuff–the dismal tide is men like Chigurh, who kill without emotion and would seem to have been conjured up from Hades.

As Chigurh tracks Brolin, other characters are involved in the mix. Most prominent is Tommy Lee Jones as a local sheriff, who is a third generation of Texas lawman. His character acts as a sort of Greek chorus, commenting on the action without being able to do anything about it. He seems to understand what the dismal tide is, and who Chigurh might really be, but is powerless to stop him.

This is the most satisfying film from the Coens since Fargo. It is certainly there most serious. There is little room for the macabre humor they usually lace through their films. A few laughs slip in, especially when Brolin awakens bloody in Mexico while being serenaded by a mariachi band, but overall the mood is excessively grim, almost apocalyptic. They also do a masterful job of creating tension. I read the book and knew what was happening, but I still sat in the theatre dry-mouthed while Brolin was being stalked. This is the first time the Coens have adapted another person’s work (not counting the very freely adapted Odyssey in O Brother, Where Art Thou) but they are able to take McCarthy’s language and make it sound distinctly Coenian, particularly in the lines spoken by Jones.

Also notable in this cast is Kelly MacDonald as Brolin’s wife. To start with, it’s kind of amazing how a Scottish woman can get a Texas accent down so well, but aside from that she gives a small part a good deal of heft, particularly in her last scene.

I’m not sure if I consider this the best film of the year so far. Its competition would be Michael Clayton, which has a much more conventional, crowd-pleasing ending. But No Country For Old Men is far more thought-provoking and better exhibition of film craft. It is a stunning achievement.


About Jackrabbit Slim

Location: Vegas, Baby! I’m much older than the other whippersnappers here, a baby boomer. I tend to be more snobbish about film, disdaining a lot of the multiplex fare for “cinema.” My favorite films: Woody Allen’s oeuvre (up until about 1990), The Godfather, The Graduate, A Hard Day’s Night, Pulp Fiction. Politics: Well, George McGovern was my political hero. I’m also a prickly atheist. Occupation: Poised to be an English teacher in Las Vegas. For many years I was an editor at Penthouse Magazine. My role on this blog seems to be writing lots of reviews and being the resident Oscar maven.

24 responses »

  1. I really really want to see this. Hopefully the DVD will be out soon! ;-)
    Also, didn’t the Coens adapt Ladykillers? Or wasn’t it a remake of some sort?

  2. Will never forget that “Based on a true story” that came with Fargo. It’s strange, but in a way I’m still disappointed/sceptical that it wasn’t. It seemed too horrible not to be true, if that makes any grammatical or overall sense.

  3. I thought it was one of the movies of the year. Better than Michael Clayton, maybe a notch behind my personal favorite so far, Into the Wild.

    I haven’t read the book, but I loved the ending after I got over the initial surprise of it. I’ve heard a few complaints about it but I keep turning it over in my head, and I don’t know how else it could have ended and still had the impact it did. Certainly any kind of conventional ending, i.e., a showdown between Chigurgh and Sheriff Bell, would have resulted in a lesser movie.

    Agreed with the props for Kelly MacDonald. She’s Scottish? Could have fooled me. And you’re right, she completely nailed that last scene. In a way, that scene is a good example of why the movie is better than so many others – a lot of writers, directors, and actors would have handled that scene a lot differently, and without the insight into her character than MacDonald and the Coens showed.

    All in all, I don’t think it’s as good as some of the other Coens (I’m a big fan of, among others, O Brother Where Art Thou?), but it’s good to see them back on top of things after the moderate disappointment that was Intolerable Cruelty and the horrible disappointment that was The Ladykillers.

  4. Yep, MacDonald is Scottish. I’ve had my eye, ahem, on her since she debuted in Trainspotting. She also played Peter Pan in Finding Neverland, and was Steve Coogan’s wife in Tristram Shandy.

  5. I really enjoyed this film…I’m looking forward to watching it again to savor the script. This is a film full of exceptional acting, although I’m still on the fence about Woody Harrelson’s performance A touch that I liked…the way that people standing amid the aftermath of a massacre, with dead men all around them, comment that a dog was killed.

    Another Coen touch in this film-interesting interactions with quirky shopkeepers. These are fertile ground for some great lines, and one scene with the owner of a western wear store does not disappoint. While I laughed out loud, it won’t take the place of my favorite Coen shopkeeper line from Raising Arizona-when asked if balloons blow up into funny shapes, the man replies, “Well, no. Unless round is funny.”

  6. Why is there no love for Intolerable Cruelty? I meant to bring this up elsewhere, but I can’t remember where else we discussed Coen films. I’d rather watch it before seeing Lebowski again. Sometimes I just don’t get (understand) the “consensus”

  7. I found Intolerable Cruelty’s humor forced, and I thought Clooney and Zeta-Jones had no chemistry. I’m not as high on Lebowski as Nick is, but I’d watch that again tonight and have no interest in seeing Cruelty again.

  8. I enjoyed the humor and thought the lack of chemistry was part of the “plot.” It certainly wasn’t subtle, and it was another con man conning a con man con, but I laughed out loud many times throughout.

    My experience with the Coens is limited – the first move of theirs I saw was O, Brother, then The Man Who Wasn’t There, Lebowski, and Cruelty. I want to see the rest. Perhaps I should do a Coen anthology on Netflix over the next few months culminating with a No Country release on DVD. Good idea, Joe! I just might do that….

  9. I think you’re missing their best three–Fargo, Blood Simple, and Miller’s Crossing (althought I might put Lebowski ahead of Miller, but just by a hair). Of course No Country is now one of their best.

  10. I just added 11 to my queue in the order they were released. I’ll report back as they start rolling in and I’m able to watch.

  11. Haven’t seen No Country yet, but my personal Cohen hierarchy:

    Barton Fink, Fargo, Hudsucker Proxy, Miller’s Crossing, The Big Lebowski, Raising Arizona, Blood Simple, Intolerable Cruelties, The Ladykillers, O’ Brother Where Art Thou?

  12. I’m not as high on Lebowski as Nick is,

    Hohoho.. quite droll, I must say.

    Big Lebowski is so great I don’t even have words for it. Miller’s Crossing is great, too. Fargo hasn’t aged that well, though. Was great first time I saw it, but doesn’t hold up as well on repeat viewings as many of their other films.

  13. Oh yeah, forgot about Barton Fink! I’d put that fourth:

    Fargo, No Country for Old Men, Blood Simple, Barton Fink, Miller’s Crossing, Big Lebowski, Raising Arizona, Man Who Wasn’t There, O Brother Where Art Thou, Hudsucker Proxy, Intolerable Cruelty, The Ladykillers.

  14. Haven’t seen Hudsucker Proxy. Always heard it was Bad Coen Bros.

    Barton Fink is fun, but I wouldn’t put it before Miller’s Crossing or Big Lebowski.

    Long time since I saw Raising Arizona, too.

  15. Fargo is a perfect film. To quote the late Gene Siskel, “I could watch it every week.” It’s a marvel of construction, and both extremely funny and horrifying. The others Coen films are fun, but a bit sloppy and anarchic.

    Hudsucker is undone by Jennifer Jason Leigh doing a Katharine Hepburn impression. One wonders whether that was her idea or the Coens.

  16. Hudsucker Proxy is a blast, it’s far more satisfying than their other mainstream attempts (Cruelty, O’ Brother, Ladykillers).

    I think Miller’s Crossing is probably a better film than the three I placed above it, but I ranked by personal preference.

  17. What was the first Coen film you saw? Mine was O, Brother and is far and away my favorite of the 4 I’ve seen. That happens to me on occasion. The first is the best. Usually happens with songs too.

  18. Raising Arizona during the initial release. I actually went as part of a birthday party of 11/12 year olds.

  19. You guys constantly remind me how old I am. I saw Blood Simple on its initial release. I have seen all the Coen films that way, except for The Ladykillers, which I eventually caught up with on DVD.

  20. Raising Arizona here as well, and I must also have been something like eleven-twelve, but it was on television. I didn’t appreciate it then, didn’t “get” it. Still haven’t seen it since then, either. Really should.

  21. I remember being so excited about seeing “the new Randall Tex Cobb movie”.

    I had no idea what Blood Simple was at the time, unsurprising given that most of my movie arguments revolved around whether the Police Academy series would be able to survive in the post-Guttenberg era.

  22. Finally saw this a few days ago as it came up in my Netflix DVD queue and then I realized it was streaming as well.

    Thankfully I remembered nothing from this review (which is great, btw) and went into it cold. It was excellent, though some things at the end tripped me up. Certainly not enough to submarine everything that went before.

    I did follow through with my previously stated commitment to add Coen films to my queue, though not my individual reports, and for the last few months have been going through them. A few weeks ago I watched Ladykillers with a sense of dread (sounds like everyone hated it) but I rather enjoyed it. The “denouement” was hilariously poetic. I’m looking forward to whatever shows up in my mailbox next

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