Sunday, April 8, 2012

100 Movies - No. 99: No Country for Old Men

99. No Country for Old Men (2007)
Crime, Drama, Thriller, 122 minutes
Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
Starring Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem and Josh Brolin

Oscar ceremonies are sometimes dominated by one or two films because the opposition is weak, but that definitely wasn't the case in 2008. Nominees included No Country for Old Men, There Will Be Blood, Juno, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Ratatouille, Once, The Bourne Ultimatum, Into the Wild, Atonement, Michael Clayton, Eastern Promises and American Gangster.

I was torn at the time because I couldn't decide whether I wanted There Will Be Blood or No Country for Old Men to win for Best Picture. In hindsight, my two favorite films from that year are Juno and No Country for Old Men. I think the Academy got it right for once by awarding No Country for Old Men the Best Picture Oscar and Daniel Day-Lewis Leading Actor.

So why do I think that No Country for Old Men deserved its win?

The film contains so many strong elements. It gave us three memorable characters and expertly combined their three viewpoints to give us a compelling story. Roger Deakins did another wonderful job showing us the bleak Texas landscape, while the direction and writing were both superb.

Llewelyn Moss (Brolin) makes a discovery while hunting for antelope. After tracking an injured animal, he finds what appears to be the result of a failed drug deal. Five trucks are surrounded by corpses and he deduces that the last man standing would have looked for shade. He eventually locates the final corpse and finds a case containing two million dollars. Moss lives in a trailer with his wife and the money represents a chance to completely change his life.

The most interesting character is Anton Chigurh (Bardem). We see him captured by police at the start of the film, but he escapes and kills a deputy in the process. He is extremely violent and his motives are unclear. At times he appears supernatural in the way he evades capture. Is he supposed to represent Death or the Devil? Bardem makes Chigurh one of the most memorable villains ever to appear on screen. There's a scene which rivals Tarantino's farmhouse scene in Inglourious Basterds in terms of tension. Chigurh has a conversation with a gas station owner and it ends with a coin flip. The scene is both absurd and chilling at the same time. We know what's at stake.

The other major character is Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Jones). He's old, wise and extremely competent. Some of his choices show that he's more concerned with self-preservation than pursuing criminals, but he somehow gets the job done. One of his strengths is the ability to reconstruct crime scenes. He has a dry sense of humor and uncanny instincts.

The first part of the story focuses on Moss. He's an experienced tracker and a Vietnam veteran and we see him trying to evade pursuit. At first, he doesn't know who will be coming after him, but eventually learns that it's Chigurh. Instead of simply leaving the country, he decides to face Chigurh himself. That might seem to be a stupid choice, but Moss does have some intelligence and appears able to take care of himself.

Chigurh also seems highly competent and we get the sense that he's being doing what he does for a very long time. His pursuit is relentless. When he is injured, he's able to take care of his own wounds. He does bleed, but there's still the sense that he either is, or he at least represents, a supernatural force.

I won't reveal any more of the plot. I have heard two complaints about the film. One is the level of violence present and the other is the unusual ending. I think the ending is partly showing how unpredictable life can be, but I understand the complaints. I thought the ending was appropriate and my only regret was that I couldn't watch these characters for longer.

No Country for Old Men is many things. On the surface, it's the story of an extended chase. The Coen brothers said that it is a story of a good, evil and something between the two. Moss can be perceived as good or evil, but he's definitely committing a crime.

Some of the scenes require us to pay close attention to the events and contain very little dialogue. It reminds me of the opening sequence in There Will Be Blood in that way. It succeeds because of the writing and the tension that's present throughout the story. If you enjoy thrillers, this is one of the best I have seen.

If you like No Country for Old Men:

The Coen brothers have been responsible for a lot of good films and a few which don't quite hit the mark. If I were asked to choose their best work it would either be Fargo or No Country for Old Men. Fargo is similar in structure because it includes a competent police officer, evil criminals and a protagonist who we root for despite the fact that he's breaking the law. Fargo is more comedic in tone, but both films are among the best I have ever seen.

Another good film adapted from a Cormac McCarthy novel is The Road, starring Viggo Mortensen. It's an extremely touching post-apocalyptic story showing the love between a father and son.

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  1. I loved this movie and I agree that this one and Fargo are the Coen Brothers best, though I am a huge fan of all their work. I haven't seen There Will Be Blood, though I do love DDL. He's a brilliant actor, becoming each of his roles.

    Not a fan of The Road, it simply did not hold my interest either as a film or a novel.

  2. Hi Melissa,

    There Will Be Blood is quite a film and DDL was incredible. The Road is somewhat depressing, but many of the movies in my collection are.

  3. Seeing all those titles... 2007 was a GREAT year for cinema, wasn't it?

    I still think TWBB deserved Best Picture but NCFOM is so good, too. I love the Coens. Bardem rightfully became a star after this.

  4. Hi Fernando,

    Yep, it was a tough year. They both got some recognition at least. Two good stories that unfold in their own time.