No Country for Old Men

Year 2007


Tommy Lee Jones as  Sheriff Ed Tom Bell
Javier Bardem   as Anton Chigurh
Josh Brolin  as Llewelyn Moss
Woody Harrelson as Carlson Wells
Stephen Root as Man Who Hires Wells 
 
Producer/Screenwriter/Director   - Ethan Coen
Screenwriter/Director/Producer - Joel Coen

At least a dozen people are left alive in west Texas at the end of this movie. Maybe more! 

Upfront, I like the Coen brothers and their work. But how did this movie win the Academy Award for Best Picture? Were pickings so slim that year that anything not having to do with singing/dancing, teen romance, comic books, or television shows was considered Oscar caliber?

No Country for Old Men (NCFOM) isn't a bad movie. It's just not a great movie. The basic premise, someone accidentally getting ahold of illegally earned cash and then having to run for his life, has been used before. See Charley Varrick ("The Last of the Independents") or A Simple Plan for nice takes on the idea.

NCFOM does try to go one better and also include the theme of men whose time has passed them by. But, it can't top The Wild Bunch for conveying the feeling of exhaustion felt by men who are cursed to do what they do because they don't know anything else.

Except for the manner of presentation, this movie gets very few originality points. Still, if a movie is well done, that could be all it needs. Think The Usual Suspects. If you pay attention, you can figure out that movie in the first five minutes. But, the flick is so entertaining, why would you? Let it unfold.

NCFOM doesn't unfold so much as erupt.

The opening voice over by Tommy Lee Jones about old time Sheriffs who never wore guns sets up the rest of the movie beautifully. This movie is about a time of change. You've got old Sheriff Bell who eschews the use of a gun, the younger psychopath Chigurh who lives according to his personal code, and the Vietman vet Moss who, although is about the same age as Chigurh, is nonetheless closer to Bell than to Chigurh in his manners and expectations.

Starting with what's good about the movie, the main actors are all top notch. Tommy Lee Jones as the weary Sheriff Bell does a good job at portraying someone who knows the ropes but can no longer reach them. Javier Bardem is a convincing sociopath. (There is one scene at the trailer park where his on-screen personna drops and at that point you realize that this is a really nice guy doing a hell of job playing the part of the lunatic.) Josh Brolin is also believable as an ex-soldier getting in over his head.

The pacing is also excellent. Like Hitchcock, the Coen brothers let the audience in on the dangers each of the characters is about to face before the characters know. When done well, this leads to edge-of-the-seat tension. Case in point, the hotel at Del Rio, Texas. Moss is attempting to retrieve his briefcase and Chigurh is closing in on Moss' room. Will Moss get his prize? Will Chigurh interrupt him? Who is really in Moss' room?

Another nice touch comes at a gas station. In the vein of "Do I amuse you?", Chigurh intimidates the gas station attendant. At the end of the conversion you know the year in which the movie takes place, 1980, and have a setup for another "heads or tails" scene.

This is a movie to watch. If your idea of "watching" a movie is to turn it on but ignore it until you hear an explosion, then this isn't the movie for you. A lot of later scenes, including the fate of Moss' wife, are set up by earlier events.

Sometimes these set-ups are forced and these detract from the movie.

When Moss leaves his wife at the trailer park, he tells her to relay a message to his mother if something happens to him. His wife reminds him that his mother is dead. Huh? His wife is telling him, "By the way, you know you're Mom's dead, don't you? I mean, in case you forgot!" So the next line should be a killer, right? The only excuse for a lame lead in like that is if some awesome insight into the cosmic consciousness is about to be revealed. Right? What we get is, "In that case, I'll tell her myself." This is not a good enough payoff. Saying nothing would have been better.

In fact, if Moss had said nothing, a lot could have been read into the silence and the inane introduction might have been worth suffering through. Silence could have been interpreted as his prediction of his own demise or survival, or perhaps his wife's. Or it could have even meant that his Mom's in heaven and he's going to hell so he won't be able to get a message to her. "I'll tell her myself" is trite and obvious.

In fact, the opening scene of the movie had me scratching my head. Chigurh is being arrested by an inexperienced police officer. Chigurh, a.k.a. one of the unsung riders of the Apocalypse, is being handcuffed and taken to prison by someone who might as well be wearing "Away Team Red". How did this happen? How did a wet behind the ears police officer single-handedly apprehend Chigurh? What did Chigurh do wrong before the movie even started? No one knows. No one tells. But, we do have our first victim along with the introduction to Chigurh and his gas cannister.

Ah, yes, the gas cannister. Worse for wear, bent, flimsy, never needs recharging, but attached via rubber tubing to a pressure valve containing a captive bolt. This bolt is capable of blowing out door locks like a garden hose washes dirt from a driveway. Nice touch, but it makes no sense. Can any of the tanks depicted in the movie (there looked like at least two being used) be pressurize to about 200 psi without rupturing? What about the tubing? And is 200 psi enough to blow out a lock, send it ten feet across a room, and the lock still have enough energy left when it hits a person to cause internal bleeding?

Uh, no? And, Moss? Your Mom's dead.

And what purpose did the Carlson Wells character play? He was supposed to be some sort of ex-colonel tough guy. After Wells shows up, his only display of toughness is taking a seat without being asked. Oh, no! Don't mess with this guy. This guy was a colonel? In our army? Somebody followed this guy into battle? No disrespect to Woody Harrelson, but I wouldn't follow Carson Wells into Cheers.

Here's why Carson Wells, or someone like him, was needed though - to show Chigurh checking his boots to ensure that he got no blood on them. Also, to lead Chigurh to Moss.

Carson Wells, without any help, unerringly divines the location of Moss at one point. Also, the money. When this happens, you're thinking, this guy's for real and figures into the outcome prominently. Then he fails to see Chigurh waiting for him in the lobby of a hotel. Moss' Mom has company!

Which I guess puts words to the least satisfying aspect of the movie. None of the characters behave predictably. Sheriff Bell talks a good game and has super-human powers of deduction but then whines a lot and comes out as static. Moss looks to be ahead of the game but acts contrary to common sense. He stashes a gun, but he never uses it. He counts the money but fails to detect a signal generator as big as a Zippo lighter that's mixed in. He returns to a battle field but parks his truck on hill summit so that anyone within miles can see it.

Chigurh's personal code varies as do his reasons for killing people. Does he kill all witnesses? In some hotels he does and in others, like the one in Del Rio, he doesn't. Does he kill all non-witnesses? He threatens a gas station attendant in one scene for recognizing the details of a license plate but at other times, he sets cars on fire and doesn't care about the license plate. Maybe this was supposed to make Chigurh complex. It made him unpredictable. In the end, his predictability is essential. So, these earlier scenes depicting a capricious nature worked against the ending.

Why is it worth watching? It is intense and there's good acting and nice scene build-ups. It's pretty violent but without a lot of blood. For the most part, the deaths (I counted at least eighteen) aren't witnessed. The mood is sustained throughout the movie.

What's bad? Character behavior is choppy and erratic. There are some actions by characters that'll have you yelling the equivalent of "Don't go down into the basement!" at the screen. Mechanical devices, like the captive bolt stunner and the tracking beacon, have cartoon-like powers.

Finally, there's the ending. People are confused by it. I'm not sure why. Everyone knows what happens to Moss, his wife, Sheriff Bell, and Chigurh. Although in the case of Chigurh, his last appearance is along the lines of a supernatural event. Maybe it was intended to drive home (get it?) the fact that he's becoming an old man. Regardless, the ending's not clean in that it's not happy. In fact, not everyone gets what they deserve. It's a lot like life.


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