No Country for Old Men

Thriller

  • Written and directed by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen
  • Based on a novel by Cormac McCarthy

The Coen brothers haven’t quite topped themselves with their latest crime-gone-wrong thriller; Fargo is still their best picture. But they never before made anything so dark and depressing as No Country for Old Men. Or so bereft of laughs. For their adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel, they’ve created a world where death can come from anywhere, where good deeds seldom go unpunished, and where the triumph of evil seems inevitable.

That world is west Texas in 1980. That’s red state America on the eve of the Reagan Revolution. I don’t know if there’s an intended political parable here, but I can’t help wondering.

Parable or not, the Coen brothers made one scary, violent, and depressing picture. It’s not just the blood and gore–of which there’s a lot–it’s the fear. We find ourselves looking frequently into the eyes of people who are about to die. In most cases they know they’re about to die, but have no idea why. And the man who’s about to kill them feels no remorse. It’s hard to say what he feels. Perhaps detached bemusement.

That man is played by Javier Bardem as one of the scariest movie villains of the decade. He’s intelligent, one step ahead of everyone else, knows a variety of ways to kill a human being, and clearly enjoys what he does. He has a strange sense of honor, but it does nothing to check his cruelty. There’s not an ounce of humanity in this man.

What about heroes? No Country for Old Men doesn’t really have any, but it offers two separate protagonists.

Josh Brolin’s Llewelyn Moss gets the ball rolling when he stumbles upon the remains of a shoot-out–obviously a drug deal gone wrong–in the middle of nowhere. Rather than go to the police, he helps himself to a suitcase filled with $100 bills–a stupid, dangerous, yet entirely understandable thing to do. Yet it’s an act of mercy that puts his life in danger. And it’s his misplaced confidence in his own abilities that endanger the lives of a whole lot of innocent people.

Tommy Lee Jones gets top billing as Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, the movie’s moral center. Imagine a male version of Frances McDormand’s sheriff in Fargo, only 30 years older and finally warn down by all the evil he’s seen. He’s still horrified by it, but he’s lost the belief that he can do anything about it, and he probably can’t.

No Country for Old Men is a sad, gruesome tale that refuses to offer the catharsis we expect in a thriller. It’s horrifying world view stays with you long after the credits fade.