The Coen brothers are two of the most talented American film-makers working in the main-stream today. That’s without question. Yet, with a lack of consistency only matched by Kevin Smith, their works generally fall into two categories. Their films, generally, are either modern masterpieces like Fargo or The Big Lebowski or they’re just unbelievably awful like The Ladykillers. I don’t know if they’ve made a film that has divided audiences more than the film they finally took home the Oscar for, No Country for Old Men. I, myself, go back and forth between thinking it’s a great movie or terribly over-rated, although for this review I erred back on the side of great again.
No Country for Old Men is a neo-western crime thriller that tells the story of three men that couldn’t be more different. Josh Brolin plays Llewelyn Moss, a cowboy who finds the remains of a drug-related shoot-out and takes $2 million in cash from the scene. Javier Bardem (in the defining performance of his career so far) plays Anton Chigurh, a hit man hired to find Llewelyn and the money and to get it back. He’s a cold-blooded psychopath who won’t let anything stop him from achieving his goal. Finally, Tommy Lee Jones plays Sheriff Tom Bell, an aging law-man who finds himself powerless in a world where the violence and vice have outgrown the world he once knew. As fate would have it and the film is very insistent that it is fate, these men are on an inevitable collision course.
On the surface, what I just described is what the film is about. And from a sheer plot standpoint, Anton and Llewelyn are the two main characters of the film. But the heart and soul of the film is Sheriff Bell, a man of old principles and old values lost in a modern world where his values are meaningless. Anton represents a man who is inherently amoral even if he has his own code or set of principles. His understanding of the world is so fundamentally different from our own. Llewelyn is a modern opportunist who, when he stumbles across a scene of violence, loots the money and lets fate decide the outcome of himself and his loved ones. The message and moral of the film itself comes across in the different dialogues and/or monologues that Sheriff Bell has throughout the film, although the most important and powerful is the one towards the end between him and his brother discussing the old days of being a sheriff and why he feels he now needs to retire.
No review of this film would be complete without discussing the practically iconic performance of Javier Bardem as Anton Chigurh. If the Coen brothers have one definig trait as directors and writers, it is a knack for packing their films full of memorable characters like the Dude or Marge Grundersson. Anton Chigurh is easily their best character since the Dude and Javier Bardem plays him with such cool, calculating menace that he becomes a terrifying production. Every detail of the performance is perfectly managed and portrayed. Javier Bardem is a multiple Oscar nominee and if he can continue to choose fabulous roles like these, I can’t imagine him not winning at least one more Oscar in the future. Along with Christoph Waltz in Inglourious Basterds, this was one of the defining supporting performances of the 2000’s.
I understand why this film is so divisive. It is so far removed from what one normally expects from a Coen brothers’ picture. It lacks the surrealism and humor that is normally a touchstone of their films. It’s dark and gritty and ambiguous as hell. However, I think they took a gamble here with their style and it paid off. I know a lot of people were confused by the ending, which I thought was pretty straight-forward but I guess pay attention. If you haven’t seen this movie yet, you need to watch it. It’s a great film and there’s no one that I couldn’t see myself recommending it to.
Final Score: A-