WARNING: This review contains plenty of spoilers. Proceed at own risk.
What is it about movies by Joel and Ethan Coen that makes them so immensely rewatchable? More than most other directors, they make films that really benefit from a second viewing. I have yet to find any of their films not improve for me each time I see them. One example seems to be their cult hit The Big Lebowski. The first time I saw it, it was just a pretty funny movie with a weird story. Nowadays, I’d call it one of my favorite comedies ever. I know I’m not alone here; many time I’ve heard people online and in real life mention how they didn’t quite get it the first time, only to be howling with laughter when they revisited it.
Somewhere in the middle of that last paragraph is what might be the key: “weird story”. That’s something that tends to run through most of the Coens’ filmography. Not weird in terms of what they’re about necessarily, but in the way they progress. When I watch a film, the first time I see it I will generally focus most of my attention on the plot. I want to see what’s going to happen next. When things don’t turn out as expected, I get thrown for a loop. This isn’t always a bad thing, of course. Many films work precisely because they defy conventions. Others might just leave me scratching my head a bit, and the Coens can easily fall into that latter category. But then I rewatch the film at a later date, remember the odd thing that’s going to happen, and can focus on everything that leads up to it and understand why they chose to make it this way. It also frees up more energy that can be devoted to appreciating the other qualities of their films, such as acting, dialogue, cinematography and so on.
I first saw No Country for Old Men back when it was new. It was early on in my cinematic awakening. It would be easy to say that I wasn’t quite ready for it at that point in my evolution as a film lover – after all, it’s hardly what you would call a crowd-pleaser – but the fact is that I did like it. Yeah, it was a bit dry and the way the story plays out is certainly “weird”, but I enjoyed the mood of the film. Plus, calm-but-psycho hitman Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) is the kind of character that seizes your attention at an instinctive gut-level. One does not need to have attented film school to be awed by his presence.
As expected, I liked the film even better after this rewatch. Part of its appeal lies in the way it bucks against the way thrillers are supposed to go. “There are no clean getaways” says the DVD cover – last year’s critical darling Drive borrowed that same tagline, but it’s more appropriate here. The premise is (as always) simple; Moss (Josh Brolin) is a normal Texan who comes across the aftermath of a shootout over a drug deal. He finds a bag full of money and decides to keep it for himself. Then bad guys want the money back and sicks a hired gun – Chigurh – after him. And there’s also an aging sheriff (Tommy Lee Jones) who’s dismayed at all the needless violence and wants an end to it. In a normal film, we’d expect Chigurh to die at the end, possibly through Sheriff Bell sacrificing himself. Moss would survive, and maybe even get to keep the money he found. What happens is the opposite; Bell retires, having changed nothing. Chigurh gets away, free to continue on his path of destruction. And Moss is killed. We don’t even get to see that happen.
Why does it have to play out this way? The film is based on the Cormac McCarthy novel of the same name. I haven’t read it, but I understand it’s a pretty faithful adaptation. Thus, it wasn’t the Coens’ idea for things to turn out the way they do. By having the bad guy win, the story transforms from your typical suspense plot into something else. Moss is presented as the protagonist for most of the film, and we’re naturally inclined to cheer for him; he seems like a decent man who, yes, took something that wasn’t his, but doesn’t seem inclined to harm anybody. But then he dies, and by having it occur off-screen, we’re harshly told that he wasn’t that important after all. The real protagonist is Sheriff Bell, and his story isn’t really about protecting Moss or catching Chigurh. Hell, you might ask if he even has a story at all. I would say it’s about him realizing or coming to terms with the way the world operates now, with bad men doing as they please and justice not always prevailing. But he already knows this when the film begins, and he hasn’t really come to terms or accepted anything as the film closes. He has merely given up.
It’s this world that the Coens transport us to. It’s Texas in the year 1980, and while the story feels more film noir, the environments can certainly remind you of westerns. It’s bleak, though. Very bleak. The days are dry and lifeless, the nights cold and threatening. Roger Deakins is responsible for the cinematography, as usual for the Coens; this was the ninth collaboration between the directors and the cinematographer. No Country for Old Men is a great-looking movie. The indoors scenes in particular are striking, with dark hotel room with mere streaks of light illuminating the people within. As the film is largely without score, the visual aspects really stand out and manage to set the atmosphere for it all. It can be said of some films that the environment itself becomes a character. This is definitely one of those films.
Acting-wise, there are no weak links to be found. Brolin puts in one of his finer performances. At first, Moss seems like an easy role to play. He’s a man of few words. Quiet. Stoic. As the pressure keeps building on him, we see how it starts taking its toll on him. The Moss who shambles across the border to Mexico is not the same as the Moss who’s calmly out hunting in the wilderness at the start of the film. Tommy Lee Jones is also great as the weary man of the law. You can really feel the tiredness seeping through his very being. Other prominent characters include Moss’ wife Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald) and cocky bounty hunter Wells (Woody Harrelson), both with important scenes that the actors pull off flawlessly.
And then there’s Anton Chigurh. What a fascinating creation that character is. In the eyes of most people populating the film, he’s a psychopathic hitman with an uncanny skill at carrying out his job. We, the viewers, get to see further complexities in him. He seems to adhere to some kind of moral code, although it’s hard to say what exactly it’s about. He kills some people because he’s being paid to do it. He kills some in self-defense. In some cases, he lets the flip of a coin determine whether they live or die. What are we to make of this? He would seem a Joker-esque agent of chaos, but the coin-flipping means he lets fate decide at times. There are also hints of Arnold Schwarzenegger‘s Terminator in his relentlessness – the scene where he tends to his wounds gives further vibes in that direction. But Chigurh is no Terminator. He can be harmed by conventional means, for one. Furthermore, he’s certainly no single-minded machine. His coin-flipping might imply that he doesn’t want to take responsibility for his actions – it was the coin that declared the person should die, not him. Notice how he doesn’t flip coins when it comes to A: his paid-for targets, and B: people who gets in the way of his targets. When he’s the one who decides to kill, he doesn’t want to make the final decision. He answers to a higher call, even if it’s just in his own head. His demeanor is that of calm and rationality. His appearance should in theory not be threatening; after all, that haircut looks more dorky than anything. But yet he comes off as strange and alien. What ever else he may be, Chigurh is most certainly terrifying. Javier Bardem pulls off a masterful performance here.
One last note on good ol’ Anton. There is a peculiar scene towards the end of the film. Chigurh is done with his mission and is driving along, only to get into a car accident. His arm is injured badly. Two boys come across him, and he buys the shirt one of them is wearing to use as a make-shift sling. Then he walks off, and that’s the last we see of him. It’s a strange bit to end the character’s story on, so there have been a number of theories about what it means. Some say it’s to show that even a ruthless killer like him is vulnerable. Others take it to mean that even an agent of chaos like Chigurh is succeptible to the same chaos he creates. To me, the scene serves two purposes. 1: “There are no clean getaways.” This rule applies to everyone. 2: Despite it not being clean, he does get away. He has taken damage, but he lives on. And as he keeps moving, he’ll be able to find people who don’t know his reputation, who are willing to help him. He will continue on his path. The bad guy has won.
I gave No Country for Old Men a score of 3/5 when I first saw it. I’m bumping it up a notch now. I was taken aback by the weird turns the story took when I first saw it, and I wasn’t quite ready for this kind of bleak atmosphere at that point in my cinematic development. I’m better suited for it now. In terms of generating suspense and a sense of dread, the film makes no mistakes, and the story is fascinating in the way it plays out. You have to admire the audacity to take a story in these directions. I won’t pretend to fully understand every choice made, but I do enjoy mulling them over. Having acting of this caliber on board doesn’t hurt either. All in all, No Country for Old Men is a must-see. Whether you take something valuable away from it or not is more up to you than the movie.