No Country for Old Men

Movie Information

The Story: A sheriff pursues a man who has walked away with $2 million in drug money -- hoping to get to him before a psychotic hit man does. The Lowdown: A brutal, chilling and disturbing thriller with brilliantly drawn characters and a balancing undercurrent of humanity. Remarkable.
Genre: Crime Thriller
Director: Joel and Ethan Coen
Starring: Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin, Woody Harrelson, Kelly Macdonald, Tess Harper
Rated: R

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.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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9 thoughts on “No Country for Old Men

  1. Ken Hanke

    Thank you. I’m sure the Coens would thank you, too, but I doubt they read the Xpress…then again, who knows?

  2. chall gray

    Yes. A very good review, Mr. Hanke.

    I was also supremely impressed by how adroitly it was adapted from book to movie. There was, inevitably, some abridgment, but I each time it was just enough, in just the right place.

    Although they did cut my favorite line from the book, which is when Bell is inspecting the crime scene and simply says, “Well, damn if this isn’t the devil with spectacles,” and keeps on, it’s still the most edifying movie experience I’ve had all year. It and the Darjeeling Limited.

  3. Ezekiel

    I’d love to hear your thoughts on the ending, but in fairness to those who haven’t seen it yet, that should probably wait till its theatrical release has ended.

  4. julyan Davis

    Thanks for the reminder of that first, key point of light in such a dark film (Moss’ return with the water). Good review and I agree, the film certainly passes the test of not being forgettable- from ‘That’s a dead dog’ to the distant pops of gunfire as Bell approaches the motel. So many scenes have that peculiar clarity that seems inherent to ‘important’ films. That said, my wife hated it and I’ve had a very hard time even thinking of people who might enjoy such a film.

  5. Ken Hanke

    It’s almost certainly in my year’s top 10. There are more to be seen, so that’s a dangerous claim to etch in stone. I just saw a pretty terrific little film called STARTING OUT IN THE EVENING with an even better lead performance by Frank Langella, which might figure in. And what of THERE WILL BE BLOOD, ATONEMENT and SWEENEY TODD? Or something as yet unthought of?

    As far as the ending of NO COUNTRY is concerned — without discussing it specifically (except to note that a lot of people don’t like it or are baffled by it or annoyed by it), I can say that it struck me as quite perfect. In fact, I think almost any other ending might have ruined it for me.

  6. “That said, my wife hated it and I’ve had a very hard time even thinking of people who might enjoy such a film.”

    Oh, I know a couple thousand (Marc drools when thinking of the dvd release…).


  7. Walt

    Excellent acting. Interesting characters. But ultimately, unlike Ken, I found no answer to the question—at least not one that was as near as satisfying as the popcorn from the concession stand.

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