Based on the novel of the same name by author Cormac McCarthy, No Country for Old Men is the perfect example of an adaptation being true to the source material. Set in the 1980s, the complex yet modest story follows three men in the aftermath of a drug deal gone horribly wrong. While out hunting antelope, Llewelyn Moss (Jeff Bridges) stumbles across a gruesome scene of dead men and a dog, kilos of heroin and a short way away the $2 million that now doesn’t have an owner. On Llewelyn’s tail after stealing the money is psychopathic killer Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) (pronounced like sugar) fresh off an arrest and brutal murders of the deputy that took him in and a passerby whose car he needed.
Opening the film is a recounted story told by Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) about a young man of 14 who killed his girlfriend of the same age. This carefully constructed dialogue and off-screen performance sets the tone for this tragic and brutal tale. This is not a happy story or one that fills you up with butterflies and gives you hope. But it’s not all entirely dreadful. Writing/directing brothers Joel and Ethan Coen craft each scene beautifully that leads into the next without slowing down or having its tightly wrapped screenplay unravel.
Each of the three main characters stories are intertwined and deeply connected yet they rarely to almost never cross one another’s paths. Most of our time is spent on the game of hunter and hunted which the roles are clear cut designated from the beginning but at times switch based on the interaction. Anton is the predator, a real-life boogeyman – he stalks his prey with intelligence and precision. There is no single person who can stand in his way like the T-800 and Javier Bardem brings this imposing and intimidating character to life. From head to toe, awful haircut to boots, the delivery of his dialogue Anton is as creepy a villain as a walking horror movie. He walks with the same slow and steady pace looking for the perfect opportunity to strike.
“The crime you see now, it’s hard to even take its measure. It’s not that I’m afraid of it. I always knew you had to be willin’ to die to even do this job. But, I don’t want to push my chips forward and go out and meet somethin’ I don’t understand. A man would have to put his soul at hazard. He’d have to say: ‘O.K., I’ll be part of this world.”
There is no rhyme or reason to Anton and how he chooses his victims. His weapon of choice is a captive bolt pistol used to kill his randomly selected victims and to blow out locks on doors. Often, he will use a coin to decide on killing a person. Llewelyn is the prey – His background allows him to remain calm even with doomsday knocking at his door. Even when he thinks he’s steps ahead of everyone else, the truth is he’s not there are powers that are more intelligent than him hot on his tail. No coin flip decides his fate but he’s the only one who can make Anton bleed. He’s a retired welder and Vietnam veteran who just happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. And then there is Ed Tom Bell who is in the middle of these two men like the referee to a boxing match. He’s tasked with stopping the bloodshed and violence from going further than it already has. Ed Tom is self-aware that he doesn’t belong, he has the sense that he’s outmatched by these younger men and can’t keep up but is willing to participate in the world they live in to stop it.
At its core, No Country for Old Men is a story about actions and consequences. What each of these characters does matters beyond their person. Their behaviors are not what every day behavior is expected but the title alludes to how the present is influenced by the past. The country isn’t what it used to be, as men get older they lose touch with reality and how much things change. It’s a country for the young leaving the older generations to feel more ancient in their beliefs.
Joel and Ethan’s script develops each of these three characters in ways that no flaws can be detected. Motivations are written clear and to the point while stepping out of line and reversing the role as the story pushes forward. These are deep and complex characters that the performances translate to the screen. Anton, for example doesn’t have to act in the brutal and disturbing fashion of his own choosing. Instead, he leaves it up to fate to decide someone’s sentence – acting as judge, jury and executioner. Whereas Llewelyn is stubborn and set in his ways. Why wouldn’t he involve the police even though he stole the money.
“Yeah, I’m goin’ to bring you somethin’, all right. I’ve decided to make you a special project of mine. You ain’t goin to have to look for me at all.”
Even with the sense of resolution No Country for Old Men leaves, a lot can be left up to the imagination. Joel and Ethan Coen killing off characters off screen is bold especially involving main characters, but the risk pays off in its own way. Some may feel this is the wrong move given how much time is spent with these characters and I’m torn about the decision. Wouldn’t it have felt more satisfactory to show the death in question to give the impression of finality of Llewelyn’s arc? Llewelyn is the personification of a person with good intentions that makes very bad and selfish decisions.
One of the most underrated aspects in No Country for Old Men is the use of sound. Scenes with more silence finds a way to speak louder than certain scenes with the most violence. It’s a way to build the tension even further especially toward the end when Ed Tom revisits the scene of Llewelyn’s death and Anton is lurking in the shadows.
Leaving moments up to interpretation normally doesn’t work well within a narrative as most of us would rather have the answers to our questions put right in front of our faces. Did Anton kill Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald)? Does Anton get away after limping and bribing the young boys after the car crash? It’s fun to speculate and doesn’t take away from the overall satisfaction the film ends on.
No Country for Old Men is a slow burn that plays out like a symphony. like a section of music there are highs and lows, shocks and twists. With each scene comes the anticipation of the next. Roger Deakins classic feeling cinematography and the Coen brother’s direction getting to the next scene feels like a tease with how the story unfolds and as soon as the next scene arrives, the anticipation begins all over again. That eagerness allows us to cherish what just played out previously that makes this film bulletproof from top to bottom.
How the Coen Brother’s handle and execute tension is one of the many strengths of this film. When Anton walks into the gas station the moment at hand instantly takes control. Dialogue, performance and sound are all dialed in leaving us to wonder if this poor man will be the next unfortunate victim of Anton’s “Mercy”. Anton is a lion playing with his food. Both performances are astounding in this moment with the quick to longer drawn-out dialogue and the fear, unsettling smile and nature that Javier puts into his villain makes him one of the greatest villains and characters ever created.
No Country for Old Men is a masterpiece in all aspects from script to execution, editing, cinematography and acting. Anton is a unique, terrifying and unsettling villain and Javier Bardem’s performance is miraculous – there is not a single bad performance. Joel and Ethan Coen find a way to intertwine these deeply complex characters together where they all feel like actual people. Tension, tone and momentum is built from the first monologue and killing to the final scene. If I were to rate No Country for Old Men, I’d rate it a 5 out of 5.
So, tell me, have you seen No Country for Old Men and if so, what do you think about it? Do you agree or disagree with me? Comment below or send me an email and let me know what you think.
No Country for Old Men is written & directed by Joel and Ethan Coen is Rated R and has a 93% on Rotten Tomatoes. No Country for Old Men was released on November 21, 2007 and has a runtime of 2 hours and 2 minutes. No Country for Old Men can be streamed on HBO Max and purchased by online retailers such as Amazon, iTunes and Google.