When Joel and Ethan Coen released No Country for Old Men ten years ago, the film was instantly recognized as one of the high-water marks of their filmography. With the exception of Fargo, none of their other films (many of them great) had managed to distill their directorial genius quite as potently.
No Country opens with the simultaneous introduction of two characters. One is via narration, with the voice of Tommy Lee Jones as rural Texan sheriff Ed Tom Bell nearly as weather-worn here as his face, conveying an overpowering sense of weariness. As he anonymously opines about the good old days of law enforcement, the visuals present a new and far more frightening evil: Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem). Chigurh is picked up by a police officer for unknown reasons, then driven silently to a police station. While the arresting officer takes a phone call, Chigurh sneaks up behind him and strangles him with his own cuffs. As Chigurgh squeezes the life out of the deputy, their boots scuff against the floor in a frenzy, creating an array of black marks right out of a painting by Franz Klein or Jackson Pollock.
The third lead is introduced during a botched hunting trip. Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin, at the start of his curmudgeon phase) fails to bring down a pronghorn, and instead stumbles on the bloody aftermath of a massive drug transaction gone wrong. Amid the punctured bodies and rotting dog carcasses is a truck filled with dusty bags of Mexican heroin. A little farther away he finds a bag filled with two million dollars cash and unimaginable troubles. Chigurh, the psychopathic agent of chaos, has been sent to retrieve the bag, and Bell is left to find Moss before fate catches up with him.
The conversation around No Country largely (and quite understandably) focused on aspects of technique and performance, but absent from most critical appraisals was a discussion of the film as the Coens’ most political work to date. Beyond its simple tale of revenge and violence, No Country for Old Men is a portrait of the United States at the mercy of rampant ennui and encroaching economic devastation. Though set in 1980, it’s an astute summation of the country’s mood circa 2007.
At the time of the film’s release, the symptoms of what would become the financial crisis — and then the Great Recession — were just coming to light. The movie casts a particularly desolate portrait of Texas, but other suburban streets with foreclosure after foreclosure weren’t looking much livelier at the time. Llewelyn and his wife Carla Jean (played wonderfully and sensitively by Kelly Macdonald) live in a cramped trailer that would soon become familiar to thousands of people who had imagined owning their own homes before the financial collapse.
Even more present than this economic anxiety is a sense of rampant, soul-sucking greed. Moss steals the money because it could change his life, but paltrier displays of greed are peppered throughout as well. In two mirror-image scenes, injured and bloodied versions of Moss and Chigurh are forced to pay hundreds of dollars to teenagers for their clothing, either as a replacement for Moss’ soiled clothes or as a sling for Chigurh’s broken arm. In both instances, the boys accept the transactions rather than trying to find medical help for the potentially dying men. They also devolve into squabbling over the money. In Moss’ case, another boy tries to extract even more money out of him in order to give up a half-drank beer; Chigurh’s savior refuses to share his bounty with his friend, even though part of the money was to buy silence from them both.
This portrait of greed can sometimes seem a bit off the mark, as if the Coens are laying this immorality at the feet of regular folks, but they also reveal a deeper, more fundamental culprit: corporate greed. In a possible homage to Point Blank (1967), the film reveals a corporate stooge pulling the strings of common criminals. Stephen Root’s unnamed executive is coldly efficient in his quest to retrieve his stolen money; he has no interest in the foot soldiers who meet their deaths over it, nor in the innocents unfortunate enough to cross Chigurh’s path as he attempts to retrieve it. If anything, the Coens underplay the depravity of Root’s businessman. A little over a year later, the economic collapse and startling greed of the country would become apparent to everyone, the financial services firm Lehman Brothers would suffer a staggering bankruptcy, and its CEO would appear on the cover of New York Magazine adorned with devil horns.
Despite No Country’s diagnosis of American rot, it’s unlikely that the Coen brothers intended the film to have those resonances. Most of their films have been steadfastly (even doggedly) removed from contemporary social concerns. The most obvious signs of the financial collapse and impending global recession were still a year away in 2007, so it’s understandable that critics would fail to connect the film to the turmoil that was starting to ravage rural and suburban America. Another film from 2007, Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, also dissected the country’s contemporary sickness, though in more straightforward terms. Critics didn’t miss the themes, but they mostly attributed them to the Upton Sinclair book the film was loosely based on, not current economic angst.
Of course, No Country for Old Men endures not just because of its uncanny social resonances — it also benefits from one of the Coens’ best casts. Bardem’s Chigurh steals most of the spotlight, and understandably. Bardem, affecting a dead-eyed stare and sporting a strangely feminine bob hairdo, is far more frightening than any horror film monster. The emotionless rumble of his voice, coupled with his cruelly elaborate weapons, makes him particularly chilling.
The film is remarkably faithful to Cormac McCarthy’s novel, partly because the book is fairly short and can conveniently fit in a two-and-a-half hour film, but one area in which the movie departs is in the scope of Tommy Lee Jones’ character. In the novel, Bell is the main force of the narrative, and each chapter opens with one of his monologues. The film uses only a few of the monologues, usually layered over other scenes, and Bell is pushed into the background in favor of Moss and Chigurh. Yet Jones’ noble demeanor prevents his character from becoming an afterthought. He is the voice of reason and decency, and it’s no coincidence that the film opens and closes on him. Bell hopes that he’s not the last of his generation, but has a sinking suspicion that he probably is.
No Country also displays some of the Coen brothers’ most sophisticated visual storytelling. There’s a scene of Hitchcockian visuals in which Chigurh walks out of a house, leaving the audience to wonder if he has murdered its inhabitant. It’s not clear until Chigurgh looks down to inspect the bottom of one boot, then the next. The Coens choreograph many brutal deaths in the film, but one of the most impactful is depicted only by showing Chigurh’s search for any stray blood.
The Coen brothers have made some excellent movies in the wake of No Country for Old Men, but none have quite matched the impact of this film’s quiet dread. It envelops you while watching, then sits with you long after it’s finished. When the final scene cuts to black, the enormity of the movie’s despair sinks in. What little light there is on the horizon is fast fading. It’s an experience that won’t easily be forgotten.