No Country For Old Men
No Country For Old Men is something of an oddity when it comes to Academy Award winners. Violent films have won Oscars before (The Departed’s win the year before confirms this) but the recently the Oscars have favoured either the lavish or the ‘important’. No Country For Old Men is certainly not a lavish film and its importance is shrouded in the tonality of a traditional thriller and yet it managed to beat off competition from far more Oscar suitable candidates to win its Best Picture award. I think more than anything else my shock at No Country For Old Men’s victory comes from the Academy Awards rewarding a film I legitimately liked. Usually films I like don’t make the Oscar shortlist or are snubbed in favour of more ‘Oscar Friendly’ fare. I certainly have more favourite films that were also rans (Lost In Translation, Gosford Park, The Insider, Secrets and Lies, LA Confidential, Fargo are all good recent examples) than actual winners.
But even amongst the films that I absolutely loved last year No Country For Old Men seemed like the least likely to win an Oscar. Certainly compared to the likes of The Assassination of Jesse James, Zodiac and There Will Be Blood, No Country For Old Men seemed far too unorthodox to even get short listed. The fact that only No Country For Old Men and There Will Be Blood got short listed goes a long way to demonstrating my lack of insight vis-à-vis the Academy Awards. If this is starting to sound like I don’t like the film then that was not my intention, No Country For Old Men is probably one of my favourite films of last year and my surprise comes merely from its recognition as a truly great piece of cinema.
Part of my love for the film comes from the fact that despite the Coen Brothers making some of my favourite films of the 1990s, I’d been having trouble connecting with their work since The Man Who Wasn’t There. The dour noir homage was a very nifty piece of filmmaking, clever and buoyed by a fantastic central performance by Billy Bob Thornton. Intolerable Cruelty would be a comedy that barely made me smile and The Ladykillers despite an energetic performance from Tom Hanks would prove to be the first film by the Coens that I actually thought wasn’t very good. Still their decision to adapt Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men had me very excited, McCarthy’s lean and punishing prose the perfect way to reenergise a pair of directors who seemed to be finally letting the bloat sink in.
Tommy Lee Jones and Javier Bardem are our first focal points in No Country For Old Men. Jones’ Sheriff Ed-Tom Bell provides an opening narration as Bardem’s Anton Chigurh establishes himself as a man with whom not to fuck. These two characters are the central core of the film, representing the old man whose morality is no longer in line with an ever changing world and the vicious embodiment of change. In my view No Country For Old Men is about the morality that people live by, the code and rules of conduct we engage in everyday. The film is about how that code can become untenable as the world around you changes. But it is not a film about how the modern world is becoming increasingly vicious, one of the final conversations in the film shows the world has always been this way, but about how people can become outdated or lost when their own code fails them.
Llewellyn Moss extrapolates on this by choosing to enter a world he cannot hope to survive in, and the majority of No Country For Old Men’s narrative follows his attempts to survive after taking a satchel of money from a botched drug exchange. Even from our first glimpse of Moss, played by the increasingly great Josh Brolin, we understand that he could never hope to survive when squared off with the darkness represented by Chigurh. His first line is even an echo of Chigurh, whereas Moss asks a deer to stay still as he lines up a shot (and promptly misses his intended kill shot) Chigurh asks an innocent bystander to stay still moments before casually executing him with a compressed air gun. This brief moment of duality tells us a lot about the way the film is going to proceed and also sets up the way that Chigurh approaches his victims, cattle for slaying.
Centred largely on Anton Chigurh the few scenes of violence in the film are so brutal, so honest, and so nasty and mean that it creates a palpable sense of dread and unease. Chigurh becomes more than a man in the film; he becomes an ethos, an unrelenting force which destroys everything in its path on general principal. Played pitch perfectly by Bardem, Chigurh is a truly threatening and intimidating force on the screen. Fearless, ruthless and cold blooded. We are given rare insight into his method, scenes which show the careful planning required for his flawless attacks, and it just makes him even scarier. There is just something unnerving about his planning and his innate ability which makes every scene with him in unbearably tense and every scene without him creates nagging doubts and fears that he might just be around the corner.
It’s a testament to the deliberate tone of the film that Chigurh is never allowed to become ‘badass’, in the hands of lesser directors the character could consume the film in a negative way. As it is even when he’s employing cool pieces of weaponry (No Country marks the first time I’ve ever seen a silenced shotgun and it’s a fucking marvellous piece of kit, terrifying but marvellous) you’re still never cheering for or getting excited by the violence. You just want it to stop, which isn’t to say the film is totally joyless. It’s a hard film, but there is the trademark Coen wit. The humour’s there it’s just blacker than a moonless night. From remarks about dead dogs to the dry way Sheriff Bell tells the story of a cattle owner who is paralyzed when trying to kill a steer. But the humour is often incidental to the main story which skirts on the tonal edge of bleak and finds a home in brutal.
When Moss stumbles across a botched drug deal and promptly steals a satchel containing a few million dollars he enters a world his ethical code cannot hope to survive in. His going back to give a survivor some water just proves the point of his inability to live in this new dangerous world. As such his flight from Chigurh and a bunch of pissed off Mexicans is really nothing but the thrashing of an already strung up man, his death is unavoidable and all he can hope to do is prolong the inevitable. Indeed just to stay alive requires Moss to be ever vigil and his one lapse in concentration ultimately leads to his inglorious end. Despite how careful he is, despite how much of a fighter he is, Moss just doesn’t have the ethics or immorality to survive.
Much has been said about the end of No Country For Old Men and the way that Moss’s death is dealt with. Certainly following an earlier confrontation the audience assumes that Moss will be killed by Anton Chigurh. Stalking his prey across the country and leaving a trail of death in his wake, Chigurh represents an archetypal antagonist and his lack of involvement in Moss’s final moments was a point of contention amongst my friends. But having Moss fall at the hands of Chigurh would give credence to the character; he would no longer be one of the cattle. Having him be killed off-screen by an unknown Mexican assailant once again demonstrates how unprepared Moss is for the world he has found himself in.
The final section of No Country For Old Men just focuses back on the codes that the three characters use to govern their lives. Moss finally meets the end that had been looming since he set eyes on the money, Sheriff Bell realises that his code is just untenable and gives up thus securing his survival, whilst Chigurh is punished for an infraction of his own code. Anton Chigurh’s final scene takes place at the home of Llewellyn Moss’ widow Carla Jean. Previously in the film he spared a gas attendants life after his quarry won a coin toss. He offers this same deal to Carla Jean who promptly refuses to put her life into the outcome of a coin toss. Chigurh is forced to kill her without the coin flip and this infraction leads to his being hit by a car as he drives away from the scene. Whilst the accident isn’t fatal it hammers home the tonality of the film, that even a minor deviation from the codes and ethics we live our life by can result in catastrophe.