Have you ever seen a movie that you’ve been told you’re go to enjoy so many times, that you know it can’t possibly live up to your expectations, but this skepticism allowed you to enjoy the movie nearly as much as the people who recommended it to you in the first place? That’s what No Country For Old Men was for me. With four major Oscars under its belt (from 2008), and a near-unanimous adoration for the film, I was bound to be swayed by the opinions that have come before me. Purging as much of that as possible from the experience, here’s what I thought.
No Country For Old Men follows three men through the events that bring their lives together. Tommy Lee Jones is Ed Tom Bell, the local sherrif of a small desert town; Josh Brolin is Llewelyn Moss, a man who, while hunting, finds an obscene amount of money laying around after a drug deal gone awry; and Javier Bardem is Anton Chigurh, the scary mother-lover who comes looking for the cash. Rarely interacting with each other, the story feels more like three separate narratives, showcasing the inner workings of each of the three men.
Sheriff Bell is at a stage in his life where he has to decide whether he is going to be a crotchety old man with endless nostalgia for simpler days or an old man with unquenchable need to, despite every reason not to, seek out, and thrive on a continued existence. This is the character we get the most real insight into, as he is allowed a narrative voice during certain parts of the movie, such as the introduction. In struggling to determine how his life is going to go, Bell is honest and reflective, without resorting to self pity. As a law enforcer, he understands that losing his life is a risk of the job, but the one situation he is most afraid of is coming into contact with the kind of evil that he cannot explain. When he finally does encounter such a power (Chigurh, but we’ll get to him in a moment), Bell not only has to come to grips with this, his worst fear, he also comes to realize that, although new to him, inexplicable evil is not a novel invention. For Bell, and all cops before him (including his father), life and career have direction and meaning until the pursuit of justice inevitably brings him face-to-face with a man, who, by the unstoppable nature of what he is, negates everything that that life has stood for.
The aforementioned evil, Chigurh, is a terrifying man. He is large, mysterious hitman, with a vile enough reputation that even other hitmen reluctantly fear him. He is resourceful, killing people with weapons, handcuffs, and even air. Even his cleverness is ghastly; as we watch him toy with a shop owner, playing with the storekeep’s words, we guiltily enjoy the wit, but know full well that, should the game step outside of Chigurh’s surgically precisely controlled pleasure, he won’t hesitate for a second in ridding his prey of its life. In keeping with Bell’s ignorance of how Chigurh’s mind works, we also only know what we need to. We know he’s dangerous, intelligent, and violent. Beyond that, we have a vague realization that he seems to follow some kind of code of ethics when it comes to his actions. He keeps promises, even when the people he has made them to have long since died by his hands. Beyond that, we barely know why he does what he does, or even, really, what he is doing. Grounding his explicit threat in humanity is his bodily form. Sometimes, Chigurh’s intended victims fight back, and when they do, his body can pay the price. Unlike other seemingly unstoppable movie villains, he can get hurt, bleed, and feel pain, but, adding a further level of terror to the experience, he also has an advanced understanding of emergency medical procedures, and can piece his broken body back together, seemingly overcoming his frail, human weaknesses. It would not be entirely out of place to call Anton Chigurh the scariest character in film.
Lastly, there’s Llewelyn Moss. In this trinity of characters, Moss is the weak link. He lacks the honesty (both in self-awareness and in speech) of his counterparts, and seems to still be caught up in maintaining pretenses of manliness. Rather than coming to the story by way of a chosen career path, Moss comes into the mix by making a greedy decision. He finds a ton of money and decides to keep it, as many would. Then, in performing a somewhat redemptive action (bringing some water back to an incapacitated drug runner), he ends up in the sights of Chigurh. From there, he spends the movie running away, putting countless people’s lives at risk for the sake of retaining claim on a payload that he hasn’t earned. While there’s nothing wrong with Brolin’s performance, the character itself seems to be more of a plot necessity than the kind of deeply layered characters we have otherwise seen. While Chigurh’s motivations are mysterious, Moss’s don’t really make sense. Despite being a welder, he is not at all surprised to stumble across the drug bust, or find a dozen bodies lying around. He is also inexplicably adept at avoiding Chigurh, even when logic would almost definitely demand they run into each other earlier than they do. Whether it’s by MacGuyvery use of a hotel’s duct work or sheer luck, Moss, for a good long while, stays ahead of his pursuer. All the while, Moss is (barely) keeping in touch with his wife, promising to share his wealth with her as soon as he is safe, while never treating her with any particular affection or interest, outside of marital requirement. Even though he seems the victim, Moss does little to earn or deserve our sympathy.
With this dog-and-cat-and-mouse game playing out, tensions rise whenever anyone gets close to anyone else. None of the three characters ever appear on screen together, further building the anticipation of the inevitable confrontation. One sequence in particular, where Moss is sitting in his hotel room, when he realizes that Chirugh has followed him to the same building, is among the most ball-clenchingly intense scenes I have ever witnessed. Some critics use buzzphrases like “this movie will hold on tight and won’t let go.” Now that I’ve sat through that scene, I know what those critics mean. Although the unavoidable showdown does eventually come to pass, the bulk of it happens offscreen. While this keeps in line with the no-two-main-characters-share-the-screen rule, it denies the audience with any cathartic release of all of the tension that has been building up for the last hour and a half. We come back into the story about a minute after, and have to piece together what happened through second-hand explanations and guesswork. Without an actual release, the last act feels like it’s simply continuing the story, minus one of its characters. Then, after another monologue, it’s over. This is unconventional story-telling, to say the least, and there are those who are bound to be disappointed by it, I’m also fairly sure I’m one of them.
Otherwise, No Country For Old Men is truly incredible. With two (out of three) powerfully memorable characters, and an unrelenting provision of suspense, the benefits greatly outweigh the debatable shortcomings.