We have recently endured an insufferable procession of godawful movies. They show up here roughly a year after being added to our Netflix queue, so it’s sometimes hard to remember who to blame for muck like Never Been Thawed or Love Actually or Dreamland — or The Quiet, an unconscionable waste which actually did come to a complete, dead stop, just like Shirley Sealy wrote in a review I read too late. I don’t know that I have ever felt more sorry for anyone than poor Edie Falco standing naked in the middle of such rubbish.
After a string like this, watching No Country for Old Men was like biting through the insulation and tasting the sweet copper of an extension cord in use. Amy and I were gripped by glorious cinematic terror virtually from the moment the movie began, and the adrenaline jolts and drips kept coming the entire time.
No Country for Old Men is a masterfully made classic action thriller, wrapped in a meditation on entropy and death, chance and futility.
The film is set in the desolation of West Texas near the Rio Grande. At first, the vast landscape suggests a sweeping epic on the scale of, say, Brokeback Mountain. You prepare yourself for wistful contemplation, forlorn cowboy music, crickets and campfires.
In just a minute or two, though, a trail of blood leads smack into the center of a intensely-focused and harrowing chase.
Javier Bardem, meanwhile, plays Anton Chigurh, a blood-curdling killer who is already in pursuit of this cash. A brutal hulk with an awful haircut, Chigurh is an executioner out of a cold-sweat nightmare, as ruthless and relentless as they come. He staggers unstoppably forward like Frankenstein’s monster, snuffing out lives and lugging a sinister device — a pressurized tank and air hose with a violent little implement on the end.
The beauty of the way this pursuit plays out is in its tightness and economy. Life and death are determined by inches and seconds as these two smart opponents quickly deduce more and more about each other, and the movie wastes no time or words, giving the viewer just enough information to keep up as it twists along its breakneck course. The tension is increased because it is controlled. Both men take a matter-of-fact approach to their horrifying circumstances, simply because any slip would mean instant death. No moment is milked, the music is very minimal, and even when these characters are being fleshed out, your hair is standing on end.
Bookending the action and weaving back and forth through it is another excellent performance by Tommy Lee Jones as local sheriff Ed Tom Bell — a very familiar type of role for Jones, who also starred in The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada and just keeps refining his talent.
Bell is coming to grips with being at the end of his career. He is soon going to take his badge off after a life spent trying to keep the peace and order in a perpetually and perhaps increasingly chaotic world. As Bell’s Uncle Ellis (played by Northern Exposure‘s Barry Corbin) later observes, “This country is hard on people.”
It is the protocol, demeanor, and contemplation of Ed Tom Bell that catapults No Country for Old Men beyond being just another masterpiece of an action thriller. Viewing the movie’s indiscriminate violence from his larger perspective makes it a modern Ecclesiastes that raises deep questions about purpose versus pointlessness and choice versus chance. Ellis tells Bell, “You can’t stop what’s comin’. It ain’t all waitin’ on you.”
Then he adds, “That’s vanity.”
When you think about a movie again and again after watching it — or when a picture is relevant in contexts outside its own setting and period — those are signs of greatness.
Seeing this film now — almost a year after its Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor (Javier Bardem) — may make it even more poignant. You can’t help but think about the economic collapse of the United States since then, about people for whom a lifetime of accomplishments has been carelessly dispatched by the greedy actions of a few.
“This country is hard on people.”
You also can’t help thinking about the war in Mexico.
I have not read the Cormac McCarthy novel from which this movie was adapted, but the screenplay is described everywhere as “doggedly faithful.” I have loved other films by directors Joel and Ethan Coen — particularly Fargo — but this one is as great as anything they have done. I rated it five out of five stars at Netflix.