If you want a gritty look at crime in America, look no further than the work of the Coen Brothers. From Blood Simple to Fargo they depict crime and murder as horrible things, but that takes place in the real world and usually performed by actual human beings. No Country for Old Men (2007), their most uncompromising work so far, has a lot of violence and a villain so terrifying he is compared to the Bubonic Plague. The scariest thing is we eventually see he is just as human as the rest of us.
When first released in the fall of 2007 the movie justifiably received a lot of hype and eventually went on to receive many awards come awards season. Being a fan of the Coen Brother’s work, I got in line for a ticket on opening weekend, which was during my days at the University of Sherbrooke. Unfortunately that meant watching a version dubbed in French, which I hate because I wanted to listen to the original actors’ voices, but I didn’t feel like waiting for the DVD release. Like most audience members, I was taken by surprise. Based on what I had seen in the trailer I was expecting something akin to The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, with the good eventually triumphing. It turns out that is the very last thing you should expect when watching a movie based on a book by Cormac McCarthy.
In my mind The Ugly of the movie was obviously Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) a killer hired by an unspecified criminal enterprise to retrieve a bag filled with $2 million after a drug deal went wrong. Despite his humorous hair cut reminiscent of Moe from The Three Stooges Chigurh is one of the most dangerous men in Texas where the action is set. Throughout his search for the money he leaves many dead bodies in his wake, some because they got in his way, others for reason only he can fathom. Sometimes he will flip a coin to give his victims what he sees as a fair chance. If they lose they are mostly likely killed with some sort of portable air pump that leaves a small hole their foreheads making the authorities wonder if he shot them and dug out the bullet with a knife.
The man he hunts is Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) a welder and Vietnam War veteran who found the drug money after stumbling on the scene of the massacre. Moss is a very smart man who comes up with ingenious ways to hide the money in crummy motel rooms. While staring at the ceiling in one such room, he thinks about his situation and realizes the reason so many people are having such an easy time tracking him down is because there is a tracker in the moneybag. As soon as he has his brain wave he hears a sound coming from down the hallway and he reaches for his shotgun in anticipation.
Finally we have The Good, sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) who wants to find Moss before either one of the criminal gangs get to him. Following the trail of bodies left by Chigurgh, Bell begins to feel overwhelmed by both the horrors he sees in real life and the ones he reads in the newspaper over his morning coffee. Reading a particularly horrifying story about a California couple who killed senior citizens for the pension checks and bury them in their backyard, he elicits a nervous laughter from his deputy (Garret Dillahund). It’s all right, Bell tells him. Sometimes he laughs as well since it is just about the only thing you can do.
My expectations, and I assume many audience members felt the same, was for the sheriff to track down the bad guy, maybe have a duel in the street, and for Moss to fly away somewhere with his money and his wife (Kelly MacDonald). Not quite.
Much like on some of today’s best TV shows, in the realistic world of No Country for Old Men it doesn’t matter if you are good or bad, smart or stupid, either way you can die a horrible death. Chigurh himself is not invincible, as at one point he suffers an open fracture from a random car accident. Like Woody Harrelson’s cocky character says, “he’s a psychopathic killer but so what? There are plenty of them around.” Read enough news stories and you are bound to find some truth in that statement.
The dialogue is crackling throughout, the performances from the three leads are mesmerizing, and beneath the bloody violence there is a good layer of dark humour. It may not be a crowd-pleaser in the typical sense of the word, but this is one of the Coen Brothers’ best movies.