Embracing the Melodrama Part II #107: No Country For Old Men (dir by the Coen Brothers)

No_Country_for_Old_Men_posterI love my home state of Texas and I love movies. Therefore, it has always upset me that most movies set in Texas get the state totally wrong.  That’s not exactly shocking.  Unlike the rest of the states, there’s actually a lot of variety to Texas.  We’re a big state and we’re home to a lot of people.  Unlike some place like Vermont, Texas is a world all its own and it’s not surprising that most outsiders are incapable of getting their mind around that and instead find themselves embracing simple-minded clichés and stereotypes.  That’s perhaps why the best films about Texas tend to be ones that were actually made by Texans.  If you want to see the real Texas — flaws and all — than I suggest watching the films of Richard Linklater or perhaps Wes Anderson’s Rushmore.

And yet, it took two outsiders to write, produce, and direct one of the best films ever made about Texas.  The 2007 best picture winner No Country For Old Men was largely the work of two brothers from Minnesota, Joel and Ethan Coen.  It’s not only one of the best films about my home state but it’s also one of the best films of the past decade.

Based on a novel by Cormac McCarthy, No Country For Old Men tells the story of three determined men in South Texas whose lives are interconnected despite the fact that three of them spend almost the entire movie one step behind each other.  In fact, despite a few brief encounters where their paths meet, it can be argued that, at no point, do any of them truly interact with each other face-to-face.

Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) is the type of person that anyone who has ever lived in Texas will have met.  He’s a hard-working, plain-spoken man, the type who drives a pickup, owns a gun, and likes to begin and end the day with a beer.  He lives in a trailer with his wife, Carla Jean (Kelly MacDonald, who may be Scottish but speaks here with an almost flawless Texas accent).  Llewelyn’s not a bad guy but he’s not as smart as he thinks and, like a lot of folks down here, he doesn’t like the idea of being told what to do.  In fact, he’d almost rather die for his trouble than admit to making a mistake.  When Llewleyn comes across the aftermath of a drug deal turned violent, he takes off with a suitcase that contains $2,000,000.  After barely escaping the remaining drug dealers (and the scene where Llewelyn is chased by a pit bull is a classic), Llewelyn sends Carla Jeans to stay with her sick mother and then he grabs the suitcase and heads over to the next county.  It quickly becomes apparent, to the viewers at least, that Llewelyn has absolutely no idea how to get out of the mess that he’s found himself in.

And it’s quite a mess because Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) has been hired to track down the money.  Perhaps one of the greatest movie villains of all time, Chigurh is an almost unstoppable force of death and destruction.  Chigurh pursues Llewelyn across Texas, killing almost everyone who he meets along the way.  Interestingly enough, just as Llewelyn continually makes excuses for his own greed, Chigurh also makes excuses for his murderous activities, seeming to obsess over the role of fate and chance.  Whereas Llewelyn refuses to give up the suitcase, even though it means that he’s putting his own wife in danger, because he insists that he can figure out a way to keep the money, Chigurh occasionally dodges responsibility for his own actions by flipping a coin and putting the blame on fate.

And finally, there’s Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), who is both the most decent and the most ineffectual male character to be found in the film.  He’s an old-fashioned lawman, the type who, had this film been made in the 50s or the 60s, would have been played by Gary Cooper and would have both vanquished Chigurh and given Llewelyn and Carla Jean marriage advice as well.  In the world of No Country For Old Men, however, Ed is almost always one step behind both Chigurh and Llewelyn.  Instead of saving the day, Ed spends most of the movie shocked and saddened by the violence around him.  As the film draws to its conclusion, he’s left to wonder whether any one man can make a difference.  He’s left to literally wonder whether his area of South Texas has truly become no country for old men.

I recently rewatched No Country For Old Men on TCM and I was surprised to discover just how well this film holds up, even after repeat viewings.  If anything, the film actually improves on repeat viewings.  Once you know how the story is going to end (and, in a fashion typical of both the Coens and Cormac McCarthy, No Country For Old Men does not have a traditional ending), it’s easier to see all of the things that you may have been too overwhelmed to appreciate the first time, like Kelley McDonald’s performance as Carla Jean and Stephen Root’s cameo as Chigurh’s shady employer.

However, for me, the main reason that I appreciate No Country For Old Men is because it is one of the few films that actually manages to get South Texas right.  My mom was born and grew up in South Texas, in the town of Benavides to be exact.  I’ve spent a lot of time down there.  The portrait that No Country For Old Man paints of South Texas is not always flattering but it is largely accurate.  No County For Old Men captures both the region’s terrifying violence and its natural beauty.  It’s honest about the fact that there are men like Anton Chigurh but, at the same time, you occasionally meet an Ed Tom Bell as well.  And, of course, there’s a Llewelyn Moss in every town.  He’s the one who you meet and you hope — often against your better instincts — that he won’t get in over his head.

The Academy named No Country For Old Men the best film of 2007.  For once, the Academy was right.

12 responses to “Embracing the Melodrama Part II #107: No Country For Old Men (dir by the Coen Brothers)

  1. Finally, someone else who thinks No Country for Old Men is one of the best films of the past decade. In my opinion, probably one of the best in the past quarter century.

    It’s a film that’s both complex in how it’s characters were written, but also simple in that it’s your standard chase film. We just happen to have three people chasing each other.

    The film also manages to create tension and emotional responses without the use of any sort of music cues. It’s a film that’s mostly devoid of any sort of score. Sure Carter Burwell composed a minimalist score for the film that were used mainly in the end credits.

    No Country for Old Men pretty much relied on the sounds and ambient nose of the local setting used for the film.

    I once thought that with the success of this film more of Cormac McCarthy’s books would get adapted for the big-screen, but as some attempted to do so it became clear that McCarthy’s tales needed filmmakers with the skill of the Coen Brothers to make it work on the big-screen.

    His writing are quite dense and doesn’t flow naturally when spoken aloud. Everytime I watch No Country for Old Men it usually takes me awhile to get back into the rhythm of the particular patois of McCarthy’s style.

    Maybe James Franco can continue to try and adapt McCarthy’s best novel, Blood Meridian, as long as he does so without studio interference (i.e. The Road).

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Movies get places wrong way more often than not. Another Coen Bros movie, “Fargo” got Minnesota SO WRONG. But I understand why they did it… and it did actually work for that movie. I’ve lived in Minnesota all but about 10 of my nearly 50 years (the rest was in Texas).. and I’ve met maybe a few people who were like those in Fargo in all those years. But… I get it ..it’s a movie.
    I do think Coen Brother movies get better with additional viewings as well.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. “people always say the same thing…”

    yes, my kids get tired of me quoting this movie, I’ve seen it so many times. And it does hold up and improve. It’s one of those, like Kill Bill, or any of dozens of others, that if its on – I end up watching it from whatever point I catch it until the end.

    Great film, great review.

    You can’t stop what’s coming…that’s vanity


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