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You Can't Stop What's Coming: On No Country for Old Men

The Coen brothers’ “No Country for Old Men” was my first experience of encountering a new great film to cherish and admire. When I watched it for the first time in January 2008, I expected something as good as others said, but found myself wholly captivated by its chilling but compelling chase drama; I was simply knocked down by how masterfully the movie manipulates and subverts its genre elements. After the movie was over, I was fully convinced of its greatness, and was even more excited when it won four Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actor. 

Like many great films, the movie establishes its overall tone right from the opening scene. As a series of barren landscape shots are shown, we hear the phlegmatic narration of Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), an old Texan sheriff who cannot help but be nostalgic about good ol' days in the past, while baffled and daunted by the senseless reign of violence in his world at present. He recollects his disturbing encounter with a boy who showed regret when he was about to be executed for his brutal murder of a 14-year-old girl who was incidentally his girlfriend, but that horrible boy is nothing compared to what we are soon going to observe along with the movie. There is a mysterious murderous man who casually wields his cold-blooded violence at every step of his, and we sense weary resignation from Bell’s voice as he flatly expresses his bafflement about this evil man beyond his understanding, whose messy and bloody trail bitterly confirms Bell that things are falling apart in his world.          

The man in question is Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), whose main tool is as bizarre as his odd hairdo (which to my small amusement, reminds me of a common hairstyle of South Korean males in the 1980s). He usually carries a captive bolt pistol connected to an air tank, and there is a chilling moment when he approaches to his latest victim with his captive bolt pistol ready to be used. “Step out of your car, please,” he says with a courteous but terrifying smile, and then swiftly finishes his job once he has his captive bolt pistol right on the forehead of the unfortunate guy.

The first part of the movie is mainly about how Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), an ex-welder who is also a Vietnam War veteran, gets himself in a trouble with Chigurh and some other dangerous criminals. When he is hunting in the wilderness outside his small town on one day, he happens to come across a spot where a drug deal was terribly gone awry for some unknown reason. Everyone at the stop except one badly injured Mexican guy is dead, and, after his careful search around this crime scene, Moss eventually finds another dead man and a satchel full of money. Instead of calling the police, Moss decides to take away the money for him and his wife Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald), but then he finds himself in a grave danger due to his unwise act of mercy, and we soon see him being pursued by Chigurh, who is hired by a criminal organization involved with that disastrously failed drug deal. 

While it becomes quite apparent to us that Moss is in a situation way over his head, we get a number of superlative moments pulsating with sheer terror and suspense. During my recent viewing at a local arthouse theater, I marveled again at how dexterously the Coen brothers handle an alternatively tense and humorous sequence involved with one chasing dog. I found myself clenching my teeth tight again as watching a heart-stopping scene which quietly and steadily dials up the level of tension with sound details including the faint ring of a telephone from downstairs. 

Right before watching the movie, I and other audiences around me were told that we must be very quiet to appreciate its meticulous sound effects, and it was a really interesting experience for me to notice more of those subtle sound details in the film. The sound of wind blowing in the air is constantly heard in the soundtrack throughout the movie, and that adds more bleakness and loneliness to the stark atmosphere, which is vividly established on the screen by cinematographer Roger Deakins. The more I paid attention to that beeping sound of Chigurh’s tracking device, the more I appreciated how deftly it is used in the movie, and I particularly admired how it is subtly utilized for conveying to us what is going on behind a closed door at one point in the film. Carter Burwell’s sparse, ambient score effectively functions along with sound effects as never drawing any unnecessary attention to itself. We are seldom aware of this unconventional score until it makes a prominent exit during the end credits.  

The movie is based on the novel of the same name by Cormac McCarthy, a great American novelist who is no stranger to bleak, pitiless human conditions. His gruesome Western novel Blood Meridian is mainly driven by a barbaric character who is as evil and fearful as Chigurh, and many of its savage moments are not so far from what is depicted in the movie. While his Border Trilogy is often striking with dark moments of human cruelty, Suttree is depressing but haunting as delving into the despair of its alcoholic hero, and The Road, which won him the Pulitzer prize, is virtually an apocalyptic extension of his pessimistic view on humanity.

Although many of McCarthy’s works are not exactly ideal materials for movie adaptation due to their dense, elegant prose, “No Country for Old Men” is relatively easier to adapt thanks to its pulpier quality, and the Coen brothers were ideal as its adapters from the beginning. After all, they are masterful storytellers with a dark, morbid sense of humor just like McCarthy, and their adaptation is quite faithful to the novel while also successfully presenting what is felt between words and lines in the novel. For instance, look closer at the terse but intense conversation scene between Chigurh and a gas station owner who is gradually forced to bet his whole life on coin toss; each line during this memorable scene is delivered with considerable precision and nuance, and the sense of doom becomes more palpable to us shot by shot. 

Chigurh, who is regarded as a “true and living prophet of destruction” in the novel, is one of the most unforgettable villains in the movie history, and Javier Bardem deservedly won an Oscar for his performance in the film. As Chigurh adamantly and mercilessly pushes his own twisted principles amid chaos, he ironically becomes the most reliable entity in the story, and that makes him strangely funny at times. In the end, it turns out that he is not above everything at all, and we accordingly get a rich irony at the end of his final scene in the movie.

On the opposite, Josh Brolin is solid as a desperate man hopelessly mired in his increasingly precarious situation. Moss is clever and resourceful enough to stay a few steps away from the men chasing after him, but it is clear that there is no way out for him as he is relentlessly pursued by his unstoppable opponent. He is outmatched by not only Chigurh but also the chaotic world they inhabit, and we are shocked but not surprised when another twist of fate comes upon him later in the story. 

In between his two co-performers, Tommy Lee Jones effortlessly holds the center with his nuanced performance which eventually becomes the beating heart of the movie. Like Marge Gunderson in another great Coen brothers’ film “Fargo” (1996), Bell is a shrewd, no-nonsense character with human warmth and decency, and he instantly intuits what is going on as he looks around the aforementioned crime scene, but he knows too well that there are not many things he can do. He tries to do his job as much as he can, but is confirmed again of how the world has become too messy for him, and we subsequently get a thought-provoking moment between him and his older relative. When he expresses his growing weariness, his old relative sharply points out that things were not that peaceful either in the past, and we come to wonder whether our civilization is inherently destined for destruction due to our dark human nature.

The movie also cares about some of other substantial characters in the story. While Woody Harrelson is engaging in his colorful supporting role, Garret Dillahunt provides lightweight humor as one of Bell’s deputies, and Tess Harper briefly appears as Bell’s caring wife. As Moss’ loyal wife, Kelly Macdonald is especially poignant when her character faces an inevitable moment waiting for her, and the movie shows a little mercy to her character, though that does not make much difference on the whole.    

Besides being a top-notch thriller, the movie is a grim but haunting observation of human chaos and violence, and it leaves an indelible impression on us via the closing scene which can be interpreted in more than one way. Bell tells his wife he had two dreams about his dead father at last night, but he does not say much about what these two dreams mean to him. Do they merely reflect his wistful state of mind? Or, do they remind him that there is still something worthwhile to preserve and fight for? Regardless of how he feels about them, he is going to spend more time with his wife, and that is all we can be sure about for now.  

Seongyong Cho

Seongyong Cho writes extensively about film on his site, Seongyong's Private Place.

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