Originally published at PassionforCinema.
No Country for Old Men, 2007, 122 min
Written and Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, based upon a book by Cormac McCarthy
Music by Carter Burwell
Cinematography by Roger Deakins
Story: Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin) stumbles upon a drug deal gone bad and takes the money, but a psychopathic killer with a cattle gun Anton Chigurh (Shi-GUR; Javier Bardem) is bent upon taking the money from him. Meanwhile, Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) helplessly and uncomprehendingly tries to stop Chigurh.
The last half-hour of No Country for Old Men is one of the more surprising one can see in the movies. It’s much more surprising than in a con movie or a suspense thriller, because in those movies we expect to be surprised. This movie makes absolutely no claims at being a surpriser anywhere during its running length, and that lends the surprise an air of unexpectedness completely absent from most other movies.
For the first two-thirds of the movie, the dominant theme of my thoughts was: there are movies, which aim to mean more than movies, then there are movie-movies, which aim to be merely great cinematically, and then there’s No Country for Old Men, which just aims to be. It’s not about the two people engaged in this fatal struggle, for the few times we actually see their faces in any detail, in shots that in other movies would be supposed to deepen our connections to the characters, it is surprising and even slightly disconcerting; we suddenly realise how completely unexplainable these characters are. Why doesn’t Llewellyn Moss just stop? Why does Anton Chigurh… to hell with that, why is he?
The most important reason this movie completely draws us in is not because the landscapes are beautiful – quite the opposite, I’d say, but even that in itself has involving power – or because the plot has a deep metaphorical resonance with our daily lives – I’d need to see this one really well-argued to be convinced – or because the world this movie is set in is so bleak, and certainly not because we relate to the characters. No, the most important reason is the noisetrack. It’s not a soundtrack in the conventional sense; at one point it’s about to become one, but some musicians reveal themselves as the source of the music.
As I was saying before above irrelevant interjection, the charm of the first two-thirds of this movie lies mostly in its noisetrack. What draws us in is the clasping of the satchel, the cocking of the gun, the dragging of the shoe, the beeping of the detector, the flip of the switch, the buzzing of the fly, the banging of the door, and every other sound ever made by any man walking or driving across Texas. No Country for Old Men, dear reader, is the only movie that made me find dialogues spoken in thick Southern accents –with their long, loving drawls and habit of ending every sentence on a high note that I find to be the best things about many movies – anywhere near boring.
Yes, it can be argued that we are actually involved because of all the bleakness, and I would have to be a blind arse to not agree that there is some in the attitude of the plot, but that’s the only place you’ll find any of that. The Coens play it as a set of tense set-pieces; Brolin and Bardem play it merely like their characters, more along the lines of great performers than good actors; and the screenplay is more concerned with the minutiae of their actions than anything else. The only person who sees anything existentially scary about anything in the movie is the sheriff Ed Tom Bell.
And it is precisely this that No Country for Old Men becomes about in the third third. I’m not completely sure about whether this is a good thing; this turn-around takes away the status of movie-movie-movie that I was willing to endow upon this film, and a certain brand of uniqueness, and the major charm of the first two thirds, but this way the movie has an emotional heft going with the ending, Tommy Lee Jones (even his real name sounds like it’s from this movie) declaring, “And then I woke up.” An emotional heft that is much better for our memory of the movie than for the experience itself.
The problem with me, I suppose, is that I am, right now, thinking about my memory of the experience. Maybe, I think, it would have been better if I hadn’t watched it on a big screen (at the American Library in Chennai, where they show an American movie every Saturday) and I hadn’t so strongly noticed the little sounds and attributed my involvement to them. As things stand, at any rate, I’m slightly ambivalent about the ending, but this still remains one of the great exercises in style.