No Country for Old Men: A Work of Art

If you paid attention to last week’s post, then you know that not only have I seen No Country for Old Men, the 80th Best Picture winner, but that it’s also one of my favorites of all time. Now, I know what you’re thinking: why would I expect you to read my review of a movie that I already love? Well, you should keep on reading while I tell you about one of the greatest, smartest, and beautiful pieces of cinematic art on the face of the Earth.
No Country for Old Men, based on a Cormac McCarthy novel of the same name (which I have read and is as equally as brilliant). The story follows a humble retired mechanic Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) as he stumbles upon a drug deal gone wrong in the west Texas desert. He finds a little more than $2 million in cash. He takes it and from that point on, he’s relentlessly pursued by Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), a terrifying hired hitman who kills anyone who might “inconvenience” him. Meanwhile, a quickly overwhelmed and aging sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) tries to follow the two across the desert and protect Moss from a horrible death.
Having seen this movie, quite a few times, though, I know about the technical side of the story and its general progression. I’ve even known the general meaning. But, I’ve never given a whole lot of thought into what the rest of the movie is actually about. This sounds very odd especially because I told you that I’ve always loved it two paragraphs ago.
This blog forces me to look at cinema in not only a critical way while watching a movie, but also to reflect on different aspects of film from week to week. What I found during both viewings of this film and some intense reflection was a film that speaks more about humanity in general, our choices, and our sometimes foggy sense of morality than any other film I’ve seen. It’s also full of so much ominous symbolism that I could write one post after another about each scene.
By the end of the film, we’re left scratching our heads and trying to figure out what in the absolute hell just happened. And it’s a great film for that reason. To get there, we all need some fairly intense introspection. Or, maybe I’m just dumb. This is written by an idiot, after all.
But, that’s not to say that this film isn’t without its little quirks. This film has a hidden climax and it just sort of ends. That’s it. It’s almost as drastic as if I were to end this introduction in mid-sent-

Plot
No Country for Old Men features a very thick, multi-layered plot which, again, is full of symbolism and even some foreshadowing. At its heart, though it’s a game of cat and mouse: Chigurh chasing Moss around to desolate places along the US-Mexico border.
Moss, out hunting antelope one afternoon, comes across a fiesta of dead bodies that just took part in a dramatic shootout over $2 million in drugs out of Mexico. Moss, who lives in a crappy trailer park in Sanderson, Texas, takes the money, and runs, telling his wife Carla Jean (Kelly MacDonald) to hide out in nearby-ish Odessa, Texas. This is just the beginning of the trouble for Moss. who ends up being pursued by the Mexican cartel, as well as Chigurh, and even a bounty hunter, Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson). Moss is shot thrice and does everything to stay one step ahead of the calamity and sheer violence that follows him.
There are some subtle nods to Moss’s fate in this film, particularly at the beginning. When he initially goes to the site of the broken drug deal, he’s literally heading into a dark cloud that casts a giant black shadow over the land. When he returns to the site that night, the storm clouds are still there. Even when he’s ambushed by Mexicans, he runs towards the dark clouds and the storm. 1.

Writing/Dialogue
I haven’t even mentioned the director’s of this one: Joel and Ethan Coen. Not only did the brothers direct, but they also wrote the screenplay, which won Best Adapted Screenplay. Again, this film is based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy. The script is very terse and direct throughout. All the characters, even during long monologues, speak in short, choppy sentences. There’s no beating around the bush here. It, along with the sound (which we will get to soon), adds to the limitless drama.
And when it comes to drama, there’s plenty of that, too. This story is precisely paced. In fact, I wondered how the film could possibly two hours long. It went goes by at a blistering pace.
But, it was the dialogue that sped the story along. The characters were short with each other so, they too had to make an actual effort to keep up.
Finally, this script perfectly describes what west Texas is like for those that, like me, aren’t from there but have spent a significant amount of time out there. The language has a way of slowly leaning on itself. Ed Tom says a couple of lines that illustrate this perfectly. The first is, “But once I think you stop hearing ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am,’ the rest is soon ter foller,” and “well, age will flatten a man.” The dialect is perfect. “Set” is used in place of “sit” and “ever” in place of “every.” This great attention to detail even made me miss it a little bit. 1.

Sound
Oddly enough, one of the things that No Country for Old Men is famous for is its sound, which earned it a pair of Oscar nominations.
But, I can’t say that the use of sound or the lack of it is why the audio is so good. In reality, it’s both. First of all, there is almost no score. It’s there, though, trust me. But it’s hard to find. This lack of a score was absolutely brilliant.
This movie takes place in an empty desert, and Moss is effectively on his own out there. The lack of music underscores that. Two-third of good video is great audio, and yet, with something as fundamental as a soundtrack missing, it not only matches the desolate setting but it makes the rest of the sound better. It makes the viewer hyper-aware of the sounds in the film. You hear every footstep, breath, and especially every bullet. This simplifies things for the viewer and it allows you to concentrate on the tension and what is happening with our characters. 1.

Set Design
No Country for Old Men takes place in and around desolate Terrell County, Texas and in Sanderson. However, it was actually shot in the city of Marfa, Texas, in the equally as lonely Presidio County.
The setting was a work of art in and of itself. Wide-open spaces with far-off horizons litter the film. It’s a simple setting while it still adds vacancy to the feel of the movie.
I’ve never been to Sanderson or even Marfa, but I can’t imagine that there’s anything special there. Therefore, the physical sets reflect that. This is especially true for all the hotel rooms in the movie.
When I stopped to think about it, a significant chunk of this movie takes place in bland, outdated, and cheap motels. This doesn’t make for a remarkable set for sure, unlike Titanic, but I don’t think this movie needs an expensive and over-the-top set, either. 1.

Cinematography
Roger Deakins was the Director of Photography for this film and he earned an Oscar nomination for Best Cinematography. It lost to Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, which is another favorite.
No Country for Old Men is a champion of visual storytelling. Like the rest of the film, the cinematography was also lonely. There is, however, no shortage of incredibly beautiful shots. From the brilliance of the opening scene to the final frame, each shot is perfect and stunning.
But that’s not even the best part of the cinematic art present here. I found that the most interesting part was the presentation of the dialogue. An overwhelming majority is shown through a simple shot-reverse-shot technique. No Country for Old Men excels in the subtlety used in this approach.
The prime example of this is fairly early in the film, during the famous coin-toss scene between Anton Chigurh and a hapless convenience store clerk. Throughout the beginning of the scene, Chigurh toys with him, almost, deciding whether or not to just kill him. The scene plays out the same during almost the entirety of the exchange: a shot on Chigurh while he speaks and then a shot to the attendant when he does. Then Anton, who has been snacking on peanuts, finishes his snack, he lays the wrapper on the counter. The camera lingers there for a couple of beats. It then jumps to the clerk, who is watching the wrapper unfurl. But, the camera is closer to him than at any other time in the scene.
This marks a shift in the whole tone of the scene. The discarded wrapper signifies the end of the current conversation. The close-up of the clerk brings his fate into focus.
This isn’t the only use of the technique in this film. It was fascinating to me to how tiny elements like a wrapper with peanuts or a telephone ringing radically change the course of the film. 1.

Acting
There are many excellent performances in No Country for Old Men, but, as I mentioned above, the story features around three, Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, and Tommy Lee Jones.
Josh Brolin plays the humble Llewelyn Moss who stumbles on the money and flees with it. He is your typical hero in American cinema: gruff, manly, a little funny, and always seems to know what to do. But, upon further inspection, he isn’t your typical hero, after all. Moss is the personification of all of us. He’s human nature; he’s not perfect. He’s a thief and is very selfish. And yet, he still displays some principles and some honor. He blurs the line between moral and immoral behavior. Brolin is simply fantastic in this role, despite his snub by the Academy.
Tommy Lee Jones is Sheriff Ed Tom Bell. Throughout the film, he constantly laments the new age of crime in his small Texas town. He’s the only one who plays it safe and he watches life pass him by. He struggles with what his place in his new world is. Out of the three stars of this film, he’s on the screen the least. But his role is critical. He’s one of the “old dogs” of law enforcement. His struggle symbolizes a changing world, and the risks, but also the rewards of wanting something that can never be again.
Finally, there’s Javier Bardem, who is Anton Chigurh and this role won him an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Quite frankly, Chigurh is one of the creepiest and insidiously vicious villains in movie history. His weapon of choice is either a compressed air tank with cattle stunner to the forehead or a shotgun with a beer can of a suppressor. He kills with an unbiased eye and sometimes leaves a person’s fate up to the flip of a coin.
Chigurh wears only black, has black hair and lives in the shadows. With his violence and his gear, he’s obviously a representation of death because he takes it everywhere. But, he’s also a representation of life, too. Death is random, but isn’t life also just as random? He’s amoral, with no regard for any lives. He’s randomly violent but has hard and fast rules that he abides by. Life is like that, too. 1.

Directing
Joel and Ethan Coen got their only Best Director and Best Picture win for No Country for Old Men and, together, the pair have been nominated for 13 Academy Awards. With such an impressive filmography for these two, it’s hard to difficult to put this movie on a list of their best ones. But it certainly is. It’s executed to perfection.
The real genius of No Country for Old Men is not in its cinematography, or its acting or the sound. It’s in the narrative, but not in the way that you might think. A giant bulk of the movie follows Moss and Chigurh, with Bell on the side. Yet, this isn’t their movie. It’s not their story. Moss’s fate is anti-climatic while the bad guy Chigurh isn’t held accountable for his own actions. No, the brilliance is that this is actually Ed Tom Bell’s movie.
His constant lamentations of the new crimes and how he handles them paint an incredibly cynical picture of the new, modern world we live in. Ed Tom represents the part in each of us that wants things to be simpler and wishes that life wasn’t so cruel. But it’s not that way. Life is unfair, random, and sometimes violent. 1.

Bonus Points
Like Slumdog Millionaire, it’s hard for me to assign only three additional points. I could do a lot more. But, again, it cheapens the accomplishments of the other films that have earned their 10s. So, No Country for Old Men gets a ten.
Final score: 10/10

Oscar Facts
No Country for Old Men won the 80th Academy Award for Best Picture on February 24, 2008, at the Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles. It beat out Atonement, Juno, Michael Clayton, and There Will Be Blood for Best Picture. Denzel Washington presented the award and it was accepted by Scott Rudin and the Coen brothers. No Country for Old Men tied for the most nominations that night with eight and won the most Oscars with four. It was nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing, Best Cinematography, and Best Film Editing. Jon Stewart was the host.
Other notable winners were Daniel Day-Lewis winning Best Actor for There Will Be Blood, Marion Cotillard got Best Actress for La Vie en Rose, and Tilda Swinton won Best Supporting Actress for her role in Michael Clayton. The ceremony was watched by 32 million people, which was the lowest ratings since 1974.

Final Thoughts
As promised, here’s a bit about this year’s Oscar nominees. Check out this great video about why Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird is so great.
Next week, I’ll take a look at the first of two of Francis Ford Coppola’s most famous films The Godfather. After that, it’s The Godfather Part II, Dances with Wolves, My Fair Lady, Casablanca, The Greatest Show on Earth, and then Silence of the Lambs.

8 Comments

  1. Well, I have seen this movie, but only once…it was quite violent! Your review was very good but I don’t have the urge to see it again…I’m glad you enjoy this movie so much, just not my cup of tea 😊. My husband on the other hand loves this movie!

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