Over the years, Joel and Ethan Coen have made a name for themselves as artists truly given to idiosyncrasy. And through the creation of such critically acclaimed crime dramas as Blood Simple (1984), Miller’s Crossing (1990), and Fargo (1996), it was with that very eccentricity and peculiar vision that these brothers have thrust themselves into the top tier of contemporary filmmaking. It should be considered, however, that they do not work exclusively with the gritty and the somber, having helmed such substantial comedies as O’ Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), The Ladykillers (2004), and Burn After Reading (2008).
I loved each of the latter three works, but never cared much for their more serious efforts — a penchant completely flipped on its head by the viewing of No Country For Old Men. This 2008 Academy Award winner for best picture was the finest piece of cinema I’ve ever come across. From the acting and directing, to the cinematography and screenplay, this work somehow grabs, entrances, and then releases its audience with a feeling of almost painful emptiness (indeed, almost all Coen brothers films seem to evoke this feeling, including their comedies.).
The plot unfolds in 1980 west Texas, perfectly fitting the story for all its haunted, isolated air. While hunting in the desert, Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) comes across the grisly aftermath of a drug deal gone wrong, sets out to find the last man standing, and soon falls upon him – very much deceased – clasping a satchel full of money. Upon taking the dead man’s bag, Moss ignites a chain of reactions that will forever alter the lives of an unfortunate handful of people. Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) attempts to save Moss from the forces he’s provoked. But Bell knows that his good intentions must eventually face his disillusionment — culminating in one of the most bizarrely quiet and immeasurably epic showdowns ever captured on screen.
Brolin and Jones give Oscar-worthy performances, with Woody Harrelson also doing a first-class job as the former Vietnam officer Carson Wells. But far and away the finest ingredient is one Anton Chigurh (ingeniously portrayed by Javier Bardem). Violence incarnate, Chigurh is assigned by the implicated drug forces to track down Llewelyn Moss and retrieve their money. However, in hiring the man these runners inadvertently unleash a monster, and brought to bear is the fate of an unfortunate few.
The most widely offered critique of this film regards the end. It is the furthest thing from satisfying and may in fact serve no resolute purpose, but that seems to be the Coens’ intention. Their message: that simply living merits neither reward nor resolution. That time wears down both strength and structure. Simply put, romanticism takes a back seat to practicality. And practicality is perhaps the most compelling aspect of this tale and all its players, for they are flesh and blood, given to weakness and self-destruction. In place of our flawless hero, we find greed and faltering courage. In place of our condemnable villain there is but one undeniable truth: fate exists and cannot be altered.
No Country for Old Men is adapted from Cormac McCarthy’s 2005 best-selling novel of the same name. Other novels by McCarthy include The Crossing (1994) and The Road (2006). The film’s atypical ending parallels that of the book, so readers averse to peculiar conclusions may wish to forego this particular work. For film fans who love unconventional story telling, however, I most highly recommend this cinematic masterpiece.