The blog of a Western fan, for other Western fans

Book and film leave you with a hard knot of coldness in your stomach

Set in West Texas (as was
the Coen brothers’ first movie, Blood
) in 1980 – a piece of dialogue about a coin situates it exactly in
that year – No Country for Old Men tells, faithfully, Cormac McCarthy’s story of a drugs deal
gone wrong which develops into a complex pursuit-Western noir. It’s a stunningly good book. I
remember I bought it in 2005 the day it came out in Borders in Flagstaff, AZ and I read it while staying at the Plaza Hotel in Las Vegas, NM. Little did I know that the very same hotel (called the ‘Eagle’ and on the Mexican border) would figure in the movie only two years later. It’s a great hotel, by the way, and I recommend it.
hero (of a kind), Llewelyn Moss, excellently played by Josh Brolin, is a tough, independent
cowboy. He’s a trailer-park rube but he manages some pretty Western maneuvers and he goes his own way. 
The ordinary guy who is out of his depth
Ed Tom Bell, the decent country sheriff who is after him, as much to
protect him as jail him, is marvelously interpreted by the actor who dominates,
Tommy Lee Jones. Mr. Jones is a Texas man and a rancher and was the perfect
choice. The role moves seamlessly on from his wonderful Pete in The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada of
two years before. He is an actor capable of great subtlety, as this part
World-weary, wry, out of time
As Anton Chigurh, the
enigmatic, scary hitman after Llewellyn, with his sinister air cylinder, Spanish actor Javier
Bardem, in his 70s haircut, is superb. He is creepy and chilling. When he was
approached by the Coens, he
said “I don’t
drive, I speak bad English, and I hate violence.” The Coens responded,
“That’s why we called you.”
When he learned about the haircut he had to wear, Javier Bardem said he wouldn’t get laid for months afterwards. The Coens high-fived their success, for the hairstyle adds wonderfully to the weirdo effect.
Curiously for the narrative
and unusually for a Western, these three principals never meet. On one level
you’ve just got a druggy crime story with an amoral bad guy, a decent cop and a
dumb redneck – the ugly, the good and the bad, you might say – and you root for Llewelyn,
the ordinary guy doing his best but out of his depth. But with writers and
directors as sensitive as the Coens and with a base novel as truly great as Mr.
McCarthy’s, this film goes far beyond
that. Book and film leave you with a hard knot of coldness in your stomach.
 The greatest living American novelist
The West Texas country of
the title (a lot shot in New Mexico) is harshly beautiful and there are wide exteriors finely photographed
by Oscar-nominated Roger Deakins (who did outstanding work on The Assassination of Jesse James… the same year). He paints with light.

Carter Burwell’s lean,
low-key music is subtle and sparsely used, underlining the aridity of the
landscape and theme.

Of the support actors, all
are top class. As Moss’s wife, Kelly MacDonald, a Glaswegian, has a completely
convincing West Texas accent (it comes as a real surprise to hear her real
voice). The great Barry Corbin is Bell’s aged mentor, and a scene where Sheriff Bell
visits with him is reminiscent (deliberately or not, I don’t know) of Gary Cooper talking to his elderly predecessor Lon Chaney Jr. in High Noon. Woody Harrelson, who was so
fine as Big Boy Matson in The Hi-Lo Country, is the hitman sent after
the hitman.
In the novel, Sheriff Bell says of the dope-dealers,
Here a while back in San Antonio they shot and killed a federal
judge. (No quotation marks. It’s McCarthy). In 1979, Federal Judge John H Wood Jr. was in fact shot and killed
in San Antonio, Texas. Free-lance contract killer Charles Harrelson, Woody’s
father, was convicted of the crime. I suppose this was deliberately Coenesque
casting, clever, apt, slightly creepy.
Woody Harrelson, son of a hitman, as the hitman sent after the hitman
There are the scariest motel scenes since Psycho.

In some ways it’s a kind of Texas Fargo, with small town folk swept up into major crime, but really
it’s an anti-Fargo, hot and southern,
not snowy and northern, with chilling, inexorable, lethal criminals rather
than comically inept hitmen.

There’s a fine portrayal of courage when Ed Tom Bell enters a darkened motel room at night, fearing that the killer is within. He demonstrates that true courage is not the absence of fear but being afraid and doing it anyway.

This is a dark film and the
humor (for there is humor) is appropriately black. Actually, the America they
show is no damn country for anyone. As is to be expected from the Coen brothers,
the direction, writing and editing are outstanding. The picture won four Oscars
(best picture, best direction, best writing and best supporting actor for
Bardem) and was nominated for four more.

The movie is very violent
but it is essentially about violence.
From Ed Tom Bell’s opening speech on, there is a lack of comprehension how anyone
can be so violent and evil and why.  It
is also about aging and the passing of time, as the title suggests. WB Yeats
in Sailing to Byzantium put it poetically,
That is no country for old men. Sheriff
Bell says,
“It starts when you begin to overlook
bad manners. Anytime you quit hearin’ ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am’, the end is pretty much
in sight.” He sounds kinda like your grandpappy and you nod tolerantly at
the old boy. But we very soon realize that it’s gone way past
Chigurh’s depredations are beyond all hope for
decency, and Ed Tom Bell comes to understand that. Later, Bell and his old El Paso
counterpart (Rodger Boyce) put it more earthily: “It’s just goddam beyond everything.”

The Messieurs Coen

One Response

  1. popcornflix movies – For the love of god, do not let the reviews from those who gave this a 1/10 discourage you from seeing this memorable film. They're just angry because they didn't understand the movie and think it's overrated. If anything it's underrated. I wasn't a fan of Joel and Ethan Coen before this film and even after I'm still not a huge fan. I am, however, a huge fan of the writer of the novel No Country For Old Men and this movie is very faithful to the novel and the Coen's captured the essence of the novel almost perfectly. This is a great action film with some of the most realistic shootouts I've seen in film. It's suspense and even humorous at times. Again, don't let those bad reviews decide for you that you already dislike this movie. The story this movie and book tells is worth it.
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