No Country for Old Men Review

(Spoilers throughout)

Regular visitors to DVD Times may remember Noel Megahey’s recent No Country for Old Men cinema review because it seemed to ruffle a feather or two, yielding 120 comments to date, largely due to the “3″rating he assigned the film. While I respect Noel’s opinions, mine differ sharply. I think Joel and Ethan Coen’s film was far and away the best of the 2007 crop in the United States and its coronation at the Academy Awards a refreshing throwback to the 1970’s, when perhaps the Oscars mattered no more than they do now, but they at least rewarded films that did. The four statuettes picked up a couple of weeks ago signal nothing and mean nothing more than a somewhat expanded audience for the Coens’ masterpiece, both immediately and, likely, in the years to come. Indeed, its widest theatrical release stateside has just now happened, right when Miramax spits out a DVD in R1. The journey started with Cormac McCarthy’s 2005 novel of the same name, the basics of which are mostly adhered to by the Coen brothers’ screenplay. Regardless, a book’s a book and a film’s a film, each available for separate enjoyment. Let’s celebrate accordingly. Part of the magic found in the film version comes from how simple the story plays out while still maintaining an enormous complexity. The casual movie fan who’s unbothered by violence is able to appreciate the frequently sweltering Texas intensity and gripping man on the run plot. He or she will probably hate the ending, but that’s art for ya. Kill a cow, kill a man, just let me see it or I won’t feel satisfied. Alternatively, the art house wine drinkers out there can confidently point to how thematically sophisticated the film is, citing bons mots like “you know how this is going to turn out, don’t you,” or “you can’t stop what’s comin’.” The latter of which sounds suspiciously reminiscent of Clint Eastwood’s retort “we all got it comin’” in his not entirely dissimilar Oscar winner Unforgiven.

The key aspect everyone should agree on is that Tommy Lee Jones’ Sheriff Ed Tom Bell is our main character among a trio of men whose paths never entirely cross. Bell is the film's worn-out conscience and his opening narration, easily disregarded on a first viewing, provides the true entry point of No Country for Old Men, setting up everything that unfolds in the remaining two hours. A story of how Sheriff Bell arrested and testified against a young man who had killed a teenage girl, and who vowed he’d murder again if given the opportunity, lets us know the aging lawman has reached a point where he no longer understands how or why things happen the way they do. The story we see play out in the rest of the film, the sheriff warns, makes no logical sense in terms of reasoning and rationales. When you're unable to reconcile how humanity has turned against itself with such a degree of reprehensibility, it’s time to move on.

What Sheriff Bell refers to are the actions of evil personified Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), armed with an air gun normally used to kill cattle and a pageboy haircut usually reserved for only the vilest of psychopaths (though it helps to keep in mind the film’s somewhat arbitrary 1980 setting). When we first meet Chigurh, a small-town lawman is carrying him to the station, completely unaware how mortally dangerous he is. Soon after, the murderous spectre wraps his handcuffs around the lawman’s neck as they struggle on the linoleum. Bardem’s eyes joyfully light up during the killing, but most of his face remains stoically unchanged. Afterward, they return to the cold dead stare we see throughout the film. Chigurh is not a human in the traditional sense. He’s a representation of evil and No Country for Old Men is a heavily allegorical take on how age is forced to recognise the constant deterioration of society’s soul. Chigurh readies his bolt gun and tells his next victim to “hold still” just before we’re introduced to Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) saying the exact same phrase while hunting antelope. Like a classic film noir hero/chump, Moss stumbles upon a truckload of heroin and a satchel of cash. It’s the dead, bloodied Mexicans that make the whole thing ominous and the lone survivor’s plea for water that gets Moss in trouble. Moss takes the $2 million back to his trailer, but he awakens in the night thinking about the Mexican’s request for agua and, despite at least having some idea of the consequences of his actions, proceeds to go back to the site. After narrowly escaping Chigurh and a pair of (briefly) living Mexicans, Moss returns home and instructs his wife Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald) to head for her mother’s. Unfortunately for Moss, Prince Valiant has his scent and he’ll stop at nothing to recapture the money. Roughly the next hour of the film is spent detailing how Moss attempts to avoid Chigurh, and it’s a breathless rush of adrenaline with minimal dialogue and, like the entire film, almost completely free of musical cues. When Moss finally gets “what’s comin’,” the Coens choose to show only the before and after, and not the actual incident. This has proven quite divisive, though the reasons behind the disagreements are disappointing. Do we as an audience really have to see the death of Llewelyn Moss to feel some perverse sense of satisfaction or closure? No Country for Old Men is a highly unconventional film cloaked in genre expectations it respects neither through action nor mood. The audience may be complicit in putting their loyalties behind Moss, but the Coens know better. That $2 million satchel didn’t just materialise and Moss certainly didn’t turn it into the local authorities. His greed, his hubris of believing he could subvert whoever had a rightful (illegal) claim to the money was met by a reminder that things just don’t work that way. “You can’t stop what’s comin’,” and you certainly can’t prevent the force of evil from taking its selfish sacrifices whenever it wants.
Following Moss’ death, Sheriff Bell comes back to the forefront and visits his uncle, a former lawman himself, played by Barry Corbin. For all the attention received by Corbin’s line, it’s what Jones says that reinforces the pessimism and sums up the entire film for me. “I always figured when I got older, God would sort of come into my life somehow. And He didn’t. I don’t blame Him. If I was Him I would have the same opinion of me that He does.” This clearly implies that the aged men of the title grow older and grow wiser by realising life’s truths, by recognising pixie dust and elfin intervention are things of mythic lore. The violence of evil, of Chigurh, isn’t something new. The same insurmountable force has been around since the beginning of time, but the form it’s embodied is constantly in flux. Evil evolves while man can only stand by incredulously, passing the torch along to someone else whose appetite for violence hasn’t yet been exhausted. Or, to put another way, there’s only so much depravity we can take before throwing up our hands and letting the next person deal with it. Tellingly, Chigurh survives again and again. Shot in the leg, he meticulously repairs himself. After a most unexpected car crash that seems to illustrate even the devil himself cannot control fate, he uses a kid’s shirt for a tourniquet and limps off into the suburban sun. Evil, as we know, cannot die. When a bloody Moss needs a teenager’s jacket, the skeptical kid eventually accepts the $500 while, in a similar situation, Chigurh has to almost force another youngster into taking $100 for his shirt following the wreck. Is this some way of insinuating we’re more likely to enable evil than to prevent it? That the seeming “good guys” face skepticism and hesitancy while the bad ones slither through by our good graces? I'm not sure, but I feel confident in thinking that No Country for Old Men takes its title quite seriously and its nearly-identical message even more so. Sheriff Bell’s recounting of his enigmatic dream that ends the film is all the comfort you’re likely to take away from these two hours. And then you’ll wake up, too.

In the world of No Country for Old Men, everything is a coin toss. Moss hunting when and where he was, and his ill-advised return were just consequences of fate's pervasive hold on our everyday lives. A different day or a different location may yield a different result, or maybe a different Moss, but when you call it wrong, you'll know. The Coen brothers' mastery in draining their film of any bit of optimism is depressing in the same way life thrusts random, senseless acts of violence into our daily news. The riveting pace and frequent subversion of genre constraints work to counteract the gloom by establishing something more than just the not-so-novel idea that there are bad people out there. The realisation isn't simply that there's evil in the world. It's how you come to deal with it. It's how long you can continue watching and reading the news and still trying to make sense of it all, expecting some answer to fall from the sky.

The Disc

Buena Vista Home Entertainment has released No Country for Old Men on R1 DVD with a fine, progressive transfer maintaining the original 2.35:1 aspect ratio and enhanced in anamorphic widescreen. Roger Deakins’ beautifully ominous cinematography looks a little too flat at times, but the image is otherwise excellent. The warm colour palette and sharp detail come through strongly, with good contrast. Digital noise is minimal and I saw nothing worthy of significant complaint. As I mentioned above, the film has little musical score, occupying just 16 of its 122 minutes, including the end credits, so most everything in the English Dolby Digital 5.1 track is either dialogue or sound effects. Some of the dialogue can be a little too low at times, but the remainder of the audio is nearly perfect. The numerous gunshots are appropriately rattling throughout the surround channels and the frequent silences add a further degree of suspense. English for the hearing impaired, French, and Spanish subtitles are all offered, and are pale yellow in colour.
The three featurettes that comprise the disc’s bonus material are all pretty standard fare, but still welcomed. “The Making of No Country for Old Men” (24:28) is exactly what you’d expect and little else. Of interest are quickly detailed looks at how the opening scene between Chigurh and his arresting officer was accomplished and some brief insight on the unique weapons Chigurh uses in the film. “Working with the Coens” (8:07) is, again, fairly bland, but if you’re going to have a supplement full of praise for a film and its director(s) then at least this time the movie being discussed is worthy. That’s probably why I didn’t dislike these extra features as much as I normally do when I have to sit through glowing adoration for a mediocre movie. Finally, “Diary of a Country Sheriff” (6:44) looks at Tommy Lee Jones’ character, but it also spells out a lot of the things running through No Country for Old Men that aren’t specifically elaborated on within the film. A selection of sneak peek trailers can also be found on the disc, and start playing once you put the DVD in. An anti-tobacco message is actually the first thing that greets you here, but it is skippable, as are the previews. The No Country for Old Men trailer is not included. Inside the case is a chapter insert and a coupon for $10 off the film's Blu-Ray disc (expiring at the end of April).

Final Thoughts

No Country for Old Men didn't pick up all those awards and critics' prizes by accident. It's a brutal, multi-layered masterpiece that's as unpredictable as it is anachronistic. The film argues persuasively for the idea that darkness, evil, whatever you want to call it, is undeniable and a harrowing fact of life. Death is inevitable and, echoing themes explored repeatedly in film noir, fate can be cruel and unsparing. Whatever life has in store for us will happen, whether it involves a gesture of kindness or an act motivated by greed. One thing need not follow the next. The Miramax R1 DVD is technically solid, with three insubstantial featurettes. Cynical DVD buyers may expect a second effort at some point, but the film and presentation are strong enough to warrant taking that risk, either here or with the R2 release later on.

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