Directors: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Starring: Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, Tommy Lee Jones, Woody Harrelson, Kelly Macdonald
Words – Nathan Scatcherd
In a filmography which – it could comfortably be argued – boasts several absolutely essential films, The Coen Brothers’ 2007 adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel No Country for Old Men stands as one of the all-timers.
The plot, very basically, concerns hunter Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) coming across a bag full of drug money left in the Texas desert after a deal gone wrong, and subsequently being relentlessly tracked across the dusty expanse by Javier Bardem’s dispassionate hitman Anton Chigurh.
However, this bare bones set-up is actually more of a framework for a wider rumination on fate and coincidence; the ripple effect of violence; and the efforts of good men in a mad world they increasingly struggle to recognise.
To say more of this last point: despite much of the film focusing on Moss’ attempts to escape the psychopath pursuing him, the heart of the film belongs to Tommy Lee Jones’ weary Sherriff Bell, an older man horrified by the casual inanity of violence and its apparently escalating influence on the world at large.
The blunt, spare moroseness of McCarthy’s writing is perfectly adapted in the film’s opening, as Bell tells us, the audience, about a haunting conversation he once had with a young murderer about the flippant randomness of his crime. As we hear Bell’s words over scenes of the arid, sand-blasted desert landscape, you can almost feel the sense of having brushed up against the edge of civilisation; the Texan desert as a classic Western ‘lost frontier’ which has staged its fair share of offhand bloodshed, barely noticed and (probably) unpunished.
No Country for Old Men is ultimately a film concerned with the cost of violence and the apparent moral regression of the modern world; themes commonly found in classic Westerns. In fact, the film as a whole has been held up as a prime example of the ‘Neo-Western’ (films which follow the codes and conventions of the traditional Western genre, but are given contemporary settings).
The Neo-Western, like its traditional generic forebear, is very particularly an American genre. Westerns/Neo-Westerns are inextricably wrapped up in the country’s mythology and focused on the idea of a mythical old West, complete with the romanticised stoicism and firm, unshakeable moral standards of the era. Shortcomings of the modern West are held up against an idealised, and perhaps only ever imaginary, version of ‘the way things used to be’.
The Coens’ film is not only one of their best works – it’s also one of the best Neo-Western examples of recent memory, managing to both indulge in and subvert genre tropes to powerful effect.
Sherriff Bell is an image of old-fashioned ‘man of the law’ Americana, with his cowboy hat, hard-worn demeanour and righteous attempts to bring the mess caused by Moss and the money to a relatively peaceful resolution, and perhaps in the process restore some sense of order to a world he sees slowly being engulfed in bloodshed all around him. Chigurh – played with utterly unnerving dead-eyed calm by Bardem – is representative of a new kind of America, if not a new kind of world at large; one Bell doesn’t recognise from his youth. A world full of nihilism and moral decay; a world in which sometimes the striving of decent folk can be made nought through random chance, and the actions of bad men who never get their comeuppance.
It’s a bleak, stark view, somewhat at odds with the Coens’ usual fundamental optimism. That’s not to say the film is entirely devoid of (very) dark humour or moments of visceral beauty.
The cinematography, by the great Roger Deakins, is astonishing in how it captures wide, lonely stretches of desert just as well as it frames a motel room as some kind of oppressive pressure chamber, in one of the film’s most nail-bitingly tense scenes.
In the end, No Country for Old Men is a film that can only be described so much before one has to commit the critical faux pas of simply saying “it just needs to be seen”.
You can catch a 35mm film screening of No Country For Old Men on Celluloid Saturday during the Widescreen Weekend at the National Science and Media Museum in October.