Thoughts about “No Country For Old Men”

By

Last night I saw the movie “No Country For Old Men”, the latest offering from the Coen Brothers, the guys who brought us “O Brother Where Art Thou,” “Fargo,” “The Big Lebowski” and other one of a kind movies. Being a big fan of the Coens, I’ve been waiting with great anticipation to see this, their newest film.

200px-no_country_for_old_men_poster.jpgThere’s been a lot of talk of “No Country For Old Men” being the best movie of the year, and I’ve heard a number of people even rank it as one of their favorite movies ever, so I couldn’t help but have high expectations – which can usually kill a movie for me. Not this one.

I don’t know if I like it as a story (the way I like “Shawshank Redemption” or even a Coen film like “O Brother Where Art Thou”) – I barely cared about any of the characters and the story is pretty dark and unredemptive. And yet, like the wide open spaces of the stark Texan landscape, I found a film I could get lost in. In the end, I think “No Country…” is less interested in telling a story as it is exploring what drives the characters to do what they do. As a story it’s not very satisfying, but as a study of human nature I found it completely engrossing.

Before I go much further, let me make clear that this movie is NOT for everyone. It’s violent, it’s dark, and there’s little redemption to be found. But it still feels true.

I’m not a movie critic, so I’m reluctant to go into great critical detail of the movie as a whole – plus there’s so much I could talk about it would be hard to know where to begin.

Take for instance the nuanced performances that were delicious to watch – every character pitch perfect and delivering rich dialogue at once gritty and romantic. I hung on every word. Josh Brolin’s performance is a revelation and Javier Bardem is a mesmerizing baddie. Tommy Lee Jones, the biggest star, is subtle and authentic. His performance is surprisingly fragile to me.

I could talk about the look of the film. Roger Deakins is my favorite cinematographer (yep, I’m one of those film geeks who cares about who the cinematographer is) and his work in this film is poetry for the eyes. The lonesome sweeping landscape of Texas and the way Deakins renders it makes it as much a character as anyone else.

Or I could talk about the music. Or lack of it. As far as I can recall, there was a little music at the very beginning and then no more until the credits rolled, leaving you to deal with a tension that builds throughout the film and finds no relief in the amplified quietness. There’s no music to tell you how to feel. You have to feel it for yourself.

I could go into great detail about any of those things, but what I’m most interested in sharing is what the movie is getting at. Or at least what I think part of it is getting at. Many people will take “No Country For Old Man” at face value as a linear story of a man on the run with $2,000,000 (that he found when he stumbled upon the grisly scene of a drug deal gone bad) and the villain who is chasing him. But the way it plays out would make it a very disappointing story (in fact, many have complained that they didn’t like the ending). In fact, that storyline wraps up about three quarters in, leaving that last quarter of the movie to make us wonder what the story is really about.

I was talking with some friends afterward and we think that the film is about, at least in part, the root of all evil: money. Everywhere money shows up, trouble is hot on it’s heels. This is most obvious in the storyline of Llewelyn Moss (Brolin), the character on the run with the money he recovered from the Texas desert, but it also plays out in more subtle ways throughout. I’m thinking of the villain Anton Chigurh (Bardem) who decides whether or not he will kill someone by the flip of a coin. Those who he is about to kill always tell him, “you don’t have to do this…”, and in a climactic scene towards the end you get the sense almost that he doesn’t necessarily want to kill a certain character, and so he tells them to call the coin: heads or tails. The character refuses to call it, saying that the coin doesn’t make the decision, he does.

“You cannot love both God and money,” Jesus says. “You’ll end up hating one and loving the other.” I believe that money is the most seductive idol, a god with a stranglehold on most of us and who demands to call all the shots in our lives.  If God moves on our hearts to do something or to give, how often do we consult our checkbooks first? Money wants to be lord over us, and wants our worship.

In Chigurh we have a character who lets a coin, a piece of money, tell him whether he will kill or grant a stay of execution.

How many of us let money determine whether we live or die, whether we live out of the reality of the abundant life or whether we live in the smothering death grip of the fear that “maybe God can’t be trusted to meet my needs”?

In an even subtler scene at the end of the film, a couple of kids on their bike come upon Chigurh. He’s hurt and gives a kid $100 for his shirt so he can make a sling for his arm. As he walks away, we hear the two kids begin to argue over the money. And so the cycle continues, as though money were possessed. I think it’s truer to say that money wants to possess us.

I’m not entirely sure if that’s what the Coens intended to get at, but I think it’s in there. But regardless of whether it is or isn’t, or whether you find anything at all worthwhile in this film, the Coen brothers are two of the most singular and original moviemakers out there and they are at the top of their game. “No Country For Old Men” is one of the most well crafted movies you’re likely to see in a long time – whether you like it or not.


7 Comments

  1. Roger Wagner

    Thanks for the review. Haven’t had a chance to see the film, but I read the book recently. A few quick comments:
    1. You’re right, if the film is at all like the book, it’s not for the fainthearted (no happy endings).
    2. While you may have a point about the “mamon” angle, I think the book/film takes us deeper. The problem is in the fallen human heart. Money is an occasion for sin, but not its source. It could be anything. As Calvin said, the sinner’s heart is an “idol factory.”
    3. Chigurh’s sense of the inevitability of his actions, his determinism. God is not sovereign, but something is. The coin toss is not about (symbolic) money, but real “fate” – about letting the inevitable identify the outcome in advance. Chigurh is not simply a monster, he’s a monster with a philosophy of life.
    4. You’re right, the land (the country, the world) is a major player. Can’t wait to see how it’s filmed. Having driven through west Texas a few times, my imagination had something to work with – dreadful and beautiful all at once!
    4. The “redemption” is in the sherriff’s shared love with his wife. In Chigurh’s world, how is the existence of any love possible? But it’s there – because the “hidden God” really exists – the Source is seen in the stream, even when it flows through the desert of “this present evil world.”

    Thanks again for your post. Have to get to the movies right away!

    Roger

  2. Profile photo of Jason Gray

    Jason Gray

    @jasongray

    Great comment! You make a great case for reading the book…

    I’d love to get your reaction here once you see the movie. The book sounds like it gives clearer insight into the characters. And there was little, in my mind, to do with the relationship between the sheriff and his wife. Now that you mention it, it’s clear that there was a very real love between them, but it didn’t seem to play a big part in the film.

    I was grateful after the movie was over to hang out with friends and talk about the nature of money and the hold it has over us, and so that’s my general impression of the film. It may have less to do with the actual intent of the film and more to do with the conversation with my friends afterward.

  3. Roger Wagner

    There’s always has to be a difference between book and film, no matter how much the screenwriter, et. al. want to be faithful to the original (IMO book’s usually better, though some films really catch the feel).
    I’ll get back to you here after I see the film.
    The relationship between the sheriff and his wife is a major factor in the book, especially as it moves to its close. Really an affecting portrait (especially to those of us who have been happily married for a good long time) against the background of all the mayhem and death.
    Wasn’t saying that the money dimension wasn’t there, though (again, in the book) greed seemed to have little to do with the immediate motivation of the players. Moss seems to grab it in the first place just because it’s there, rather than with any idea that “now all my problems are over” (even before he realizes that all of his problems have just begun). Chigurh too seems driven by a fatalistic sense of completing his “job” rather than even benifiting from the money.
    As I think about it, this is really a kind of twist on the role of greed and money in the traditional “western.” In the old movies “bad guys” were often obsessed by the desire for money and power. For these “modern” characters money and power, indeed life and death, are all within their grasp – and they don’t care. Like the sheriff observes more than once (I hope in the film as well as in the book), “We haven’t ever seen people like this before.”
    Somebody must have already called this a “noir Western.” If they haven’t, I will.

  4. Pete Peterson

    I’m desperate to see this and your review just amped that desperation in to high gear. I wonder if I can sue the theaters in my area for not showing it? Hmm…

  5. Profile photo of Curt McLey

    Curt McLey

    @curtmcley

    I saw the movie a couple of weeks ago. It was a recommendation from the Proprietor. I enjoyed it a lot. After viewing the movie, I bought the book the next day. I have a good start on it, but haven’t finished it. I’m trying to finish another book (“The Education of Little Tree”) before I go full bore on this one.

    Here’s what I’ve noticed so far. Having both seen the movie and now reading the book, I’ve rarely seen a movie remain so true to the book, both in terms of chronology and specific dialogue. And that makes sense. Cormac McCarthy’s writing translates very well to the screen. I’m certain that some extended portions of the book, especially from Tommy Lee Jones character, are used word for word. That may not be so good for the screenwriter’s ego, but in this case, I think it made it a better movie than it otherwise would have been.

    This movie is almost Hitchcockian in the way tension of manufactured–not with wild special effects or overt action–but with what the viewer can’t see yet knows is coming.

    I didn’t make note of the boys arguing about money at the end. That’s a good catch, Jason. I’d say it’s most certainly deliberate and obviously an allusion to the “money is the root of all evil” theme, if that’s even the way to say it. From listening to director’s talk about their movies during DVD special features, especially those in which one can follow along with the movie itself while the director is explaining things, I’m starting to learn that with many directors–especially the good ones–that almost everything has meaning. This week I watched The Machinist and the director DVD commentary was fascinating.

    POSSIBLE SPOILER WARNING!!!

    I do have an embarrasing confession to make. Sadly, and somewhat humorously, when Tommy Lee Jones’s character was telling his wife of the two dreams he had at the end of the show–I KID YOU NOT–I dozed during the recitation of the second dream. When I opened my eyes the screen was blank. I missed the last scene! Arrgggghh! I just sat there and laughed to myself.

    Most certainly, that will be addressed in the book. If not, I’ll have to see it again. Thanks for the review, Jason.

  6. The Rabbit Room

    […] 14. No Country for Old Men – Highly recommended. I’m not usually a fan of movies tinged with western settings, but this one was awesome, a simple but great narrative–and plenty to ponder afterwards. The day after I saw the movie, I bought the book on which the movie was based. Contrary to most successful films made from books, much of the film’s action is taken word for word from Cormac McCarthy’s novel. Further, it occurs in the same order of events. And it works. The dramatic tension in this movie is not to be missed. Jason Gray also enjoyed this film and wrote a review for the Rabbit Room here. […]

If you have a Rabbit Room account, log in here to comment.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *