Skip to main content

Empire Magazine Greatest Movies List - #228: No Country for Old Men

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.


Popular posts from this blog

Empire Magazine (2008) Greatest Movies List - #70: Stand by Me

Another clear influence on Stranger Things, Rob Reiner’s Stand by Me (1986) portrays American kids from a lost era in which they could go on an adventure away from home. Nowadays if children go missing for more than an hour parents try to locate them using cell phone apps, but in the story written by Stephen King four boys in 1959 Oregon go walking in the woods during a long weekend to look for, of all things, a dead body. Their lives are sometimes at risk, they have no way of communicating with their parents, but they will definitely have a story to remember for the rest of their lives.
For many North Americans adults this movie fondly reminded them of a time in their childhood despite the inherent danger. Not so for me since, first of all, there was no time in my childhood when I could possibly go out of the house for more than three hours without my mom getting in her car to go look for me. The there is the fact that I spent a good chunk of my childhood living in Chile and Peru, an…

Empire Magazine (2008) Greatest Movies List - #364: Natural Born Killers

Natural Born Killers (1994) is not so much a movie as an American nightmare come to life. Loosely based on a story by Quentin Tarantino, starring some of the wildest actors in Hollywood at the time, and boasting a level of violence that unfortunately inspired copycat crimes, it is the textbook definition of controversial. In all fairness there are important messages amidst all the violent mayhem, but director Oliver Stone throws so much content at the screen that these messages can sometimes get lost in the carnage.
Even though the movie came out more than two decades ago it still has a legendary status, which I learned about while reading a chapter in a book about Tarantino’s career. The book, Quintessential Tarantino, contained a lot of interesting facts about the making of the movie and also spoiled the ending, but reading a few words that describe a killing spree is very different than seeing it portrayed on screen. A few years ago the director’s cut became available on Netflix, wh…

Empire Magazine (2008) Greatest Movies List - #29: Die Hard

This year I have been going all over the place with this Greatest Movies List, sometimes reviewing the next movie on the list, sometimes reviewing one I saw a few weeks ago. Since I am playing fast and loose with the rules, and since this is the Holiday season, why not skip down the list to what is arguably one of the all time greatest Christmas movies, Die Hard (1988)? Some people like to spend the Christmas season watching an angel get its wings, some like to watch a millionaire learn the meaning of Christmas, I like to watch Alan Rickman read the words “Now I have a machine gun. Ho. Ho. Ho.”
After five movies I think even the most die-hard fans (wink) would agree this franchise has gone on for too long, but the first three movies are some of the best action movies of the 80s and 90s. I actually watched them out of order, starting with the second one, followed by the third and eventually making it to the one that started it all at Nakatomi Plaza on Christmas Eve. Watching those movi…