Between Raising Arizona (1987), Barton Fink (1991), Fargo (1996), The Big Lebowski (1998), and The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001), the Coen Brothers are proprietors to a quirky filmography.
As blackly comedic as they are, one would not foresee their masterpiece to be one of the most nihilistic mainstream Hollywood releases of our time.
While some of their humorous proclivities are underpinned here, No Country for Old Men (2007), by and large, is as bleak a tragedy as you are ever to see on the silver screen.
And it is their penchant for playing by their own rules that sees them subvert generic expectations to anarchic effect here.
If you don’t know what to watch next, No Country for Old Men is available to stream on Netflix. Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay Academy Award winners Joel and Ethan Coen also co-produced the neo-Western crime thriller.
The adaptation of the eponymous 2005 novel by Cormac McCarthy took home the Best Picture Oscar as well.
In 1980 Texas, pronghorn poacher Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) finds a briefcase full of two million dollars at a drug deal in the desert gone bad. When he takes the cash and runs, hitman Anton Chigurh (Best Supporting Actor Javier Bardem) is hired to pursue him.
Burned out Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) tries to get to Llewelyn before Anton does.
No Country for Old Men is infamous for its anticlimactic resolution, but those who dismiss it misunderstand what the Coens are saying about the subject matter at hand. The viewer’s sadistic desire to see Llewelyn or Anton killed makes us no better than Anton himself.
This ethically violent film literally punishes the audience for creating a world where Anton Chigurh can play death incarnate, which is the difference between tasteful, artistic onscreen violence versus that which is gratuitous and exploitative.
It is an ambiguous movie speaking with a voice you have to listen for in silence, rather than finding yourself deafened by it. Skip Lievsay was up for Best Sound Editing, and Lievsay, Craig Berkey, Greg Orloff, and Peter Kurland, Best Sound Mixing.
The film was robbed of both – it produces ear-splitting suspense with little to no music.
And this is thanks in no small part to Bardem’s iconic performance. Anton Chigurh is a force to be reckoned with, and the mere sight of him spells certain doom for all but every character to share a scene with him.
In fact, toward the latter part of the runtime, many of his killings occur offscreen because we don’t need to see them to know another one bites the dust; that’s how powerful his evil is.
But for all its philosophizing and social commentary, No Country for Old Men is better suited to literature than film. In its Golden Age, Classical Hollywood formulized the Fordist assembly line.
No Country for Old Men is dramatically unfulfilling, though thematically rich – the greatest pictures are the ones that can do both.
If you are possessed of the patience for an acquired taste, then No Country for Old Men will garner multiple viewings out of you. It will interrogate the Anton Chigurh within you, punish the Llewelyn Moss inside you, and depress the Ed Tom Bell in us all.
The only small comfort it offers is that the world isn’t getting worse, because it’s always been a hellscape.