“What’s the most you’ve ever lost on a coin toss?”
Al’s rating: Mommy, what’s a cattle gun?
Al’s review: No Country for Old Men is a movie that some people are simply going to hate. I want to put that out there right up front. It, like all Coen Brothers movies, has been praised almost unanimously by critics across the moviesphere while the actual viewing public has been diced in warring factions and set against each other like reds and blues in Blood Gulch.
No Country is weird in the way only the Coens can be weird and, while I think that those are the qualities that make it exceptional, I can certainly understand why some people may be turned off. It’s got characters who don’t talk much, a title that doesn’t appear to have any connection to the plot, and, most confusing of all, isn’t even the movie you think it is. Yes, as you may have already heard, you will reach a point in this film when your legs will suddenly be taken out from under you and you’ll watch the rest of it hanging upside down from a tree branch wondering what the heck happened to your nice, safe action thriller. The Coens are cool like that.
The story they weave is actually two stories, the first being framed by the second. Front and center is Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin), a Joe Nobody who follows the venerable Coen tradition of stumbling on the aftermath of a dope deal gone bad and helps himself to two million dollars in a fancy briefcase. Also in typical Coen fashion, Llewellyn is about as far from your standard movie hero as possible: He’s clever without being MacGyver-smart, and possesses the survival skills and weapon training that befits a war veteran but that doesn’t automatically transform him into Colonel John Matrix or anything. He’s a guy who’s content in his two-room trailer, loves his wife, and has conscience enough that he can’t go to sleep until he’s tried to go and give water to a gutshot stranger. He’s a guy who wears a cowboy hat without irony.
On his tail is Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), a recently-escaped sociopath hired to bring back the stolen money and shoot down whoever took it. He’s terrifying like an old splatter movie; where the scared-but-curious teen-in-a-nightie wanders down the hallway and you just have to shout at them, “No! Don’t go through the door! He’s behind the door!” Every person Chigurh talks to makes you want to shake them and scream at them to run away because you know they might live a little longer if you could only stop them from trying to squeeze small talk out of this droopy-faced man with the pageboy haircut.
Chigurh’s need to finish his mission is paramount to everything else as he stalks Llewellyn across Texas. Far from being a monolithic Terminator, though, he exudes touches of humanity — small things like lifting his feet from the floor to avoid dribbling blood, that make him infinitely more frightening than Arnold in leather (except maybe when he said “Talk to the hand.” That was pretty horrifying.).
He’s just a man doling out the consequences of a choice, which is really the theme of Llewellyn’s story: Every choice has consequences, even if you don’t know exactly what those consequences will be, and they can’t be avoided forever. Chigurh follows this idea relentlessly, living and dying and killing on the belief that those repercussions must be satisfied. I don’t want to spill the guts of No Country, so I won’t dig that hole too deeply, but every turn of their story is the result of an action, and when the movie ends, it does so in the same way it began: a character encounters a situation, makes a choice, and then has to deal with the ripples it creates.
The main story is bookended by the narration of Sherriff Ed Bell (Tommy Lee Jones). Bell is threaded through the film as an aging local cop playing catch-up, always nipping at the heels of Llewellyn and Chigurh but never quite getting there in time. His tale is a far quieter struggle to understand both the nature of the crime he tracks and the measure of sacrifice it takes to be a peacemaker in today’s world. It delivers a bleak message and I don’t pretend to understand it all fully (particularly the ‘Guh?’ ending) but Tommy Lee Jones acts the heck out of it and I found it just as mesmerizing as the run-and-gun stuff that it buffers.
There’s so much more I would love to wax on about in this film: fantastic character performances by Woody Harrelson, Kelly Macdonald, Stephen Root (Milton!), and Beth Grant; little acting moments like eyebrow twitches and microexpressions that speak volumes; dialogue that sounds completely authentic but is still funny and compelling; long stretches of silence that are allowed to play themselves out instead of cutting the next explosion; the fact that the Coens have enough respect for their audience to not explain everything that goes on in their heads. There’s all that and a ton more that would keep me chattering on for a week, but I’ll rein myself in here and just tell you to go see this movie. I can’t guarantee that you’ll be one of us who love it, but I can promise you it’s something you won’t forget.
- It’s 1980? It’s never stated explicitly (and doesn’t really matter much), but Chigurh mentions in the gas station that the 1958 quarter has taken twenty-two years to get to this moment.
- Flight to Tangier, a movie about tracking down a missing satchel of money, playing on the TV in Llewellyn’s trailer?
- Picking buckshot out of your shoulder is miserable work.
- The vent thing? Clever.
- Milk. It does a psychopathic assassin good.
- Chigurh taking potshots at the birds on the bridge? What a jerk.
- It takes Llewellyn *that* long to look for a tracking device? He deserves to be found out.
- The one-dollar bills in the middle of the packs on money? I wonder how much is actually there.
- Their nighttime gunfight is apparently in the emptiest town in Texas?
- Repeated instances of matching shots for Lewellyn, Bell, and Chigurh doing the same things?
- Bell has a Texas-shaped wall clock in his office?
- There’s no music, except what’s made by characters onscreen, until the end of the movie?
- Llewellyn is really fun to type. Try it!