When I first saw the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men on Thursday night, I was slightly disappointed and would have given it four stars. After some days of reflection, I’m giving it four-and-a-half stars. Given more time and a second viewing, there’s a very good chance that it would merit the full five. It’s the kind of movie that cries out for a second look, because it’s easy to admire, hard to actually like and harder still to penetrate.
One person I know asked me what the point of the whole film was. I knew what he meant. I also knew he wasn’t someone who simply goes into a tailspin at the faintest whiff of ambiguity. I had something of the same response—and it had nothing to do with the film’s “inconclusive” ending. No, it was a simple case of why anyone wanted to tell this bleak, disturbing story in the first place. I think I know now. At least, I have an answer that satisfies me.
Whether it’s the answer is another matter, since anything capable of only one interpretation isn’t worth bothering to interpret in the first place. And it’s perfectly possible to view the film as nothing but a bitterly humorous crime thriller about the fate that befalls a man, Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), who finds $2 million in cash at the scene of a drug deal gone bad and how his consequent actions seal his fate. It’s also the chilling tale of the psychotic killer, Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), hired to get the money back. And it’s the story of aging, disillusioned, wryly cynical Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), who is out to save Moss and stop Chigurh. It’s all this and a good bit more, since it’s a work peopled with a wide range of characters drawn from Cormac McCarthy’s source novel—all of them drawn in fine detail by the Coens and their actors.
Even the smallest roles are memorable in some way. Every character has something special, something identifiable, something that makes everyone interesting in some way. It’s not realism. Of all the things the Coens could be accused of, an interest in realism would not be among them. Oh yes, they are unflinching in their realistic (albeit somewhat stylized) depiction of violence, but their characters are always movie characters in the best sense. What they say and how they act owes its realism only to the confines of the film at hand—establishing and enhancing the characters. Never has that been truer than it is here.
Some characters are defined in a line or two of dialogue, because that’s all they have. But even major characters are defined in the same manner. Sometimes a single line is the defining moment, as in the case of Llewelyn Moss and his explanation, “I’m fixing to do something dumber than hell, but I’m going to anyways.” That single line—and the reason behind it—establishes his humanity. Similarly, Sheriff Bell’s wife, Loretta (Tess Harper), is established in a scene lasting less than a minute, in which she tells Bell, “Don’t get hurt and don’t hurt nobody.”
In fact, though her screen time is minimal, Loretta is the essence of humanity in the film. She’s the film’s most openly human, hopeful and understanding character. In a sense, she’s the film’s moral center—the one who grounds Bell’s humanity. In fact, I think her character is the point to the film: the patient, indefatigable, always human voice that reassures Bell—and the viewer—that basic human goodness exists no matter how incomprehensible and seemingly evil the world becomes. It is this that keeps No Country for Old Men from being merely an exercise in nihilism. Rated R for strong graphic violence and some language.