Twenty years from now, when people watch No Country for Old Men, the Coen Brothers' adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's novel, the film will have withstood the test of time, and it will be as great then as it is right now--perhaps even better. In other words, No Country for Old Men is timeless. This is one of those rare films instantly recognizable as a work of cinema that is destined to be considered a classic. For the Coens, whose careers date back to 1984 when they made their stunning debut with Blood Simple, No Country for Old Men stands as one of their finest cinematic achievements. And considering the sibling filmmakers past work includes Raising Arizona, Miller's Crossing, The Big Lebowski and Fargo, that's saying something.
Josh Brolin, in what amounts to his finest moment as an actor, stars as Llewelyn Moss, a hunter who stumbles across the grisly site of a drug deal gone bad. Amidst the massive carnage, Moss finds one lone survivor, a badly wounded Mexican who begs him for water; he also finds two million dollars in cash, which he quickly takes for himself. With his conscience getting the better of him, Moss returns to the scene of the crime to bring water to the Mexican, only to run afoul of some dangerous men who have come for the heroin Moss left behind, as well as the cash he took. Running for his life, the quick-thinking and resourceful Moss manages to always stay one step ahead of his pursuers. But what he doesn't know is that cold-blooded killer Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) has been dispatched to reclaim the money, and send Moss to meet his maker. Meanwhile, small-town sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) is on the hunt for Chigurh, as well as Moss, who is in over his head far more than he realizes.
Finding the right words to describe what makes No Country for Old Men such an amazing film, without giving away crucial plot elements, and while simultaneously doing justice to it, is difficult. The most important thing to be said is that this is film at its finest--the perfect marriage of art and craft, intricately constructed and executed. At the foundation is McCarthy's original novel, which has been brilliantly adapted by Joel and Ethan Coen. The script provides the entire cast with rich dialog and character nuances that result in wonderful performances all around--especially Brolin, Bardem, and Jones, who steals the film. But the brilliance of the script is not just in how it is played out by the actors, directed by the Coens, or how Roger Deakins' photography brings it to life. Much of the brilliance of No Country for Old Men is in the way the story itself defies many of the conventions of cinema. This is a film that exists in a world of random fate and moral ambiguity, with characters that come and go in ways that you never see in mainstream films, and while there is a clearly defined villain in Chigurh, Moss is not exactly a traditional hero, but then neither is Bell. At one moment the film seems like a western, set in Texas of 1980, and in the next moment it is an almost existential examination of the randomness of the universe and the dangers of tempting fate. This is a film that draws you in not so much as an audience member but as a witness to the crime. And while it may at times seem like other films, it is really like no other film.
The Coens give you just the amount of information needed to know what is going on, but nothing more, leaving many blanks for the viewer to fill in. Depending on your disposition, the intelligence the Coens assume their audience has makes the film either an incredible experience, or something that leaves you scratching your head the way a feeble-minded monkey scratches its ass. That's to say No Country for Old Men is a film for people who like movies that not only cater to their intellect, but also refuses to conform to the norm. And without giving anything away, let's just say that if you loved the ending to the Coens' Barton Fink, you'll love the ending of No Country for Old Men as well.
With a career that now has spanned 23 years, and resulted in some films of pure brilliance, the Coen Brothers have left an indelible mark on American cinema. But while many of the brothers' films have been masterpieces in their own right, No Country for Old Men is a benchmark for the pair. After years of being defined by being quirky, clever and offbeat, the Coens have served noticed with No Country for Old Men that they no longer need to do rely on the same tricks to achieve cinematic relevance. And that's not to say that the many traits that have defined their other films are missing this time around, because it's all there--even the dark, deadpan sense of humor--but it is all used sparingly. But this is most definitely not The Big Lebowski or Fargo. It is, however, a lot like Blood Simple, both in terms of tone and execution, which makes No Country for Old Men all the more brilliant. This is essentially Joel and Ethan Coen proving that they can go back to where they started, and still embark on an all-new journey.
David Walker is the creator of BadAzz MoFo, a nationally published film critic, and the Writer/Director of Black Santa's Revenge with Ken Foree now on DVD [Buy it now]