Smith’s Verdict: ****
Reviewed by Tanner Smith
“No Country for Old Men” provides a fascinating character study with three complicated types—a good guy, a bad guy, and an anti-hero. One wants to do the right thing; one is practically anarchy-and-misery-personified; and the other walks that fine line between good and evil. First, let’s talk about the “anti-hero.” This is Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin), a down-on-his-luck ex-welder who lives in a trailer park with his wife (Kelly Macdonald) and sometimes sticks his nose in places he shouldn’t. While on a hunting trip, he comes across a drug deal gone wrong in the middle of nowhere. He looks around, finds a lot of bodies, and finds a suitcase full of money. So he decides to keep it for himself.
This scene, early in the proceedings, also has Moss coming across a lone survivor who is immobile in the driver’s seat of a pickup truck and weakly asks for water. So what does Llewellyn do? He takes the guy’s gun and ammo and moves on because he knows that where there are drugs (and there is a truck full of “Mexican brown”) and moves on. Why does he do this? Did he have any intention of helping him if he did have water to give to him? Well, later that night, as he lies in bed in his trailer, he does have a change of heart and decides to go back and help the poor man, thus establishing that Moss is not a good guy or a bad guy—just a guy in between.
There is a definite bad guy here, and he’s a man you never want to meet anytime soon. He’s Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), a cold, heartless killer whose murder weapon is a high-pressure air gun that can kill a cow (or kill a man with one shot to the forehead). Chigurh (emphasis on the “gurh” so it doesn’t sound like “Sugar”) is not charismatic and he’s not even enthusiastic. There’s never a sense that he enjoys what he does, as he goes around doing one horrific deed after another. What does this mean? Who is this guy? If he were a tree, what kind would he be? You can’t really ask much about this guy, because what he represents is the psychoticism of the criminal mind and how it’s only getting worse and worse. This is something that our movie’s good guy, local sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones, looking more at home than ever), discovers, as he’s been on the job long enough to know that with everything going wrong and, even worse, confusing, this is all becoming too much to handle or even attempt to understand. He knows as well as we do that Chigurh is not going to stop doing these things anytime soon, and as long as people like him are around to spread anarchy and misery, what does that say for the world around him?
Chigurh goes after Moss because the drug-deal happened in his territory and now he wants the money. Moss packs up and leaves, sending his wife to her mother’s until he can figure a way out of this. Moss goes from place to place, with Chigurh catching up to him, and Bell being thrown into this because Chigurh had escaped from (and killed) one of his deputies.
Really think about that money—if you were a poor guy and you saw a way you could keep a mysterious bag of cash, would you take it? You’d think you’d get away with it and just enjoy yourself with it, but it’s not that easy when there are people who want it back, and they’re people that are best not to be trifled with and probably can’t be reasoned with. I’ve seen Sam Raimi’s “A Simple Plan”—I can already tell you before seeing this movie that this shouldn’t end well for a character deciding to take a chance and keep the stash. In “No Country for Old Men,” Moss is a bright guy who does realize his mistakes, even if he doesn’t want to acknowledge that maybe he isn’t as smart as he thinks he is (just smart enough to outwit Chigurh at a few crucial points). Either way, Moss is an intriguing anti-hero—his mistake leads to the question of what he’ll do afterwards and we wonder what will become of him and actually care for him. This is my favorite performance from Josh Brolin; he’s very strong here.
Javier Bardem is excellent as Anton Chigurh. I think he’s one of the best, most compelling villains you’ll ever find in a film. With that cold stare and indefinable accent he carries with him, Chigurh is one creepy S.O.B. If you ever come across this guy in the middle of nowhere, you should say your prayers quickly because you’re more than likely never going to be able to say them again. He doesn’t feel pity or remorse, and he can’t be bargained with. And you never know exactly what he’s going to do. Take this scene, which comes at the half-hour mark—it involves a coin toss. Chigurh is at a gas station, the clerk decides to make small talk, and Chigurh manages to take his words and twist them around to some weird cryptic speak, before he ultimately flips a coin and tells the unnerved man to “call it.” The tenseness of this scene is enhanced by Bardem’s performance as he messes with the clerk’s mind, as well as ours, because we don’t know what he’s going to do. Is he going to kill him? What will happen when the guy finally calls it? One thing’s for sure—Chigurh won’t leave until a decision is made. That’s a great scene, and this is a great performance from Javier Bardem.
“No Country for Old Men” was crafted by the Coen Brothers (Joel and Ethan Coen), and they definitely know how to pace a film like this. With a story as complicated and with as many twists and turns, pacing is one of the more important aspects to keep us on edge and invested. With that said, the pacing in this movie is flawless, which helps with some of the most disturbing, suspenseful, uncomfortable scenes in the film, such as when Moss must escape his hotel room before Chigurh can piece together where he is. “No Country for Old Men” is very edgy throughout, with the terror counterbalanced by laconic wit that the Coens tend to put in their films (here, some of the comic bits come from Tommy Lee Jones’ wit). And being a Coen Brothers film, to expect a conventional way to tell this story (which is adapted from a Cormac McCarthy novel) would be foolish. Don’t watch this film and pretend you know everything that’s going to happen, because I made that mistake and nearly hated myself for it. This is not like any other movie I’ve seen before—it plays with our expectations, catches us off-guard, and among everything else it has to offer, it delights in making us think and wonder while also unnerving us with what it thinks it can get away with. One last thing I’ll say about that is this—if you feel the least bit hateful towards the open ending, just think about how you would rather see it end. “No Country for Old Men” is a great film.