Joel and Ethan Coen have played it (mostly) straight, resulting in very possibly their best work: the compelling, enthralling masterpiece No Country for Old Men. The brilliant novel by Cormac McCarthy is brought to life page-by-page and – at times – word-by-word in one of the most faithful screen adaptations I can recall.
Though it works wonderfully as a straightforward thriller, at its heart the film is a meditation on good and evil and the poor souls caught up in between.
While those expecting a conventional ending may walk away disappointed, the rest of us can bask in the light of the ultimate result: one of the most entertaining and resonant films in years.
Josh Brolin stars as Llewelyn Moss, a hunter who stumbles upon a drug deal gone bad in the middle of a Texas desert: bodies strewn about, a truckload of heroin, and a briefcase with two million dollars. Moss takes the money and returns to his trailer-park home and wife Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald); he can’t sleep at night, though, his conscience getting the best of him.
When he makes that key choice to go back to the scene of the crime the film really begins: he’s discovered, and soon both the Mexican drug dealers and psychopathic killer Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) are on his trail. Meanwhile, laconic sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) always seems to be a casual observer, shaking his head at the violence, always two steps behind.
Bardem is incredible as Chigurh, creating one of the scariest and most memorable screen villains in history; the character represents true evil, killing everyone in his path with perverse conviction and an air-powered cattle gun.
Tommy Lee Jones, meanwhile, in a role that only he could play, lends a deep sense of empathy to Bell; his character represents good, or better put, well-meaning; the weaknesses of goodness lead to the inevitable triumph of evil.
But Brolin, in a true star-making performance, is the driving force of the film, tragically caught between right and wrong.
There’s a point in the movie where the thriller ends, and the allegory takes over, and this has caused much dissent among audiences expecting things to be wrapped up in a conventional fashion.
But I ask this: what would you remember more, a traditional action-movie finale or Sheriff Bell’s haunting final speech (which is lifted word-for-word from the pages of McCarthy’s novel).
Excellent score by Carter Burwell, but the film is punctuated by long, incredibly tense stretches of silence. Must be seen theatrically for the full effect of Roger Deakins’ beautiful widescreen cinematography. Film is, at the very least, on a par with Fargo, the director’s previous best.
Won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director(s), Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actor (Bardem).
Trivia: Woody Harrelson plays hitman Carson Wells in this film; the actor’s father, Charles Harrelson, was a real-life hitman who once claimed to have shot John F. Kennedy.
In McCarthy’s novel, set in 1980, Sheriff Bell mentions at one point, “here a while back in San Antonio they shot and killed a federal judge.” In 1979, Charles Harrelson was convicted for killing federal judge John Howland in San Antonio.
After Billy Bob Thornton’s disappointing All the Pretty Horses, the Coen Brothers have set the bar high for films based on novels by Cormac McCarthy, one of our greatest writers.
Upcoming: an adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Road, directed by John Hillcoat (The Proposition) and starring Viggo Mortenson, Charlize Theron, and Guy Pearce, and the seemingly unfilmable classic Blood Meridian, set to be directed by Ridley Scott.