“This country’s hard on people. You can’t stop what’s coming; it ain’t all waiting on you. That’s vanity.”
While it has actually been omitted from the 1001 List, I figured I could start talking about some of my favorite films that no longer make the cut in the current edition of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die. One of the most beloved films to be cut from the list is the 2008 Best Picture winner, often considered the masterpiece of the Coen brothers, No Country for Old Men. A fascinating cat and mouse Western with some powerful thematic elements, this is undoubtedly one of the most important pieces of mainstream cinema from the previous decade. While I wouldn’t call it my favorite film from Ethan and Joel Coen, it’s a breathtaking piece of cinema that I would still consider among their highest quality of work. Every scene is distinct and memorable, and every component holds up so highly that the film never seems to falter, living up to its noteworthy reputation.
Josh Brolin plays Llewelyn Moss, a Texan hunter who stumbles upon the bloody remnants of a drug deal turned sour. He comes away with a briefcase filled with two million dollars. He sends his wife away to safety in Del Rio and makes plans for an escape, when he is soon pursued by Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), a ruthless killer in pursuit of the money. The bulk of the film follows this chase as Chigurh seeks the money and Moss seeks a fortunate ending for himself and his family. However, we’re also given glimpses into the lives of associated characters, including Moss’s wife Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald) and Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), a near-retirement county sheriff following the trail of the chase. Through these characters, we’ve given more details into the implications of the main pursuit and also a thematic context through which to view the story.
Javier Bardem’s performance is of obligatory note. His face has become synonymous with the film for his dark, terrifying portrayal of Anton Chigurh. While I think this is certainly an example of the actor providing the primary force behind the character, one shouldn’t discount how well written Chigurh actually is. His function as an antagonist is complex, and his ties to the greater theme of the film are nuanced and fascinating enough to elevate his amoral acts to a greater sense of cinematic artistry. As heartless as Bardem’s portrayal can seem, his final scene provides a strangely powerful humanization (and horror). One can’t help but compare his coin-flip mentality of the world to the fading heroic vision embodied in Tommy Lee Jones’s character. These thematic questions, embodied in distinct, well-written characters are what bring this film to greatness (along with Javier Bardem, of course).
While on the subject of Tommy Lee Jones, his function in the film seems roundabout at times, but I feel that his character is roundly fleshed out by the final scene, delivering a somber punch of intrigue to an already complex film. His opening and closing monologues remain in my mind more so than just about any of the violence or twisting turns of plot that the film managed to offer. I do feel that his scene towards the end, in which he visits his uncle Ellis, feels a bit hamfisted for thematic reasons, but the dialogue is sharp enough and the cinematography so stunning that even a slower, out of place scene from the Coen brothers feels like a work of great art. It’s also admirable that the Coens attack such a grand, difficult theme as aging and generational disconnect in a violent Western cat and mouse film. They’ve certainly come a long way from Raising Arizona (which strangely has a lot of similarities, thematically and most notably the recounting of the dream sequence in the closing monologue).
Did the Coens reach the peak of their talent with No Country for Old Men? In a way, I think so. The cinematography is some of the sharpest we’ve seen from their work, and the film has a lot more to say than most anything else they’ve made. As a piece of cinematic art, it may well be their greatest, but there are others I would still prefer. (Perhaps if No Country had some fun bowling scenes and a Jeff Bridges protagonist, we’d really be talking.) Of course, these distinctions really don’t need to be made, as the film is still a powerful work and one of the strongest of its year of release. I’d probably have given Best Picture to There Will Be Blood, but I have no qualms with the Coens finally snagging it. It’s a wild, delightful two hours of cinema, and one that will leave you thinking long after the credits have rolled, and what more could you ask for?